Alan Bates diligently pulls out the stops in "Life Support," the latest in an ongoing collaboration with dramatist Simon Gray that dates back some 25 years to "Butley" and "Otherwise Engaged." But even his rumpled authority, and a crisp production by Harold Pinter, can't keep a dour play from seeming stillborn. Though Gray is writing far more personally here than in his previous, ill-fated "Cell Mates," the feeling persists that "Life Support" is an outline for the play he wanted to write, rather than the play itself: For all its talk of bees, it possesses fatally little sting.

Alan Bates diligently pulls out the stops in “Life Support,” the latest in an ongoing collaboration with dramatist Simon Gray that dates back some 25 years to “Butley” and “Otherwise Engaged.” But even his rumpled authority, and a crisp production by Harold Pinter, can’t keep a dour play from seeming stillborn. Though Gray is writing far more personally here than in his previous, ill-fated “Cell Mates,” the feeling persists that “Life Support” is an outline for the play he wanted to write, rather than the play itself: For all its talk of bees, it possesses fatally little sting.

Designer Eileen Diss’ angled setting is a hospital room where the travel writer J.G. (Bates) maintains a bedside vigil at the side of comatose wife Gwen (Georgina Hale). On a trip to Guadeloupe, Gwen was stung by a bee, and when a local soldier stepped in to help by urinating on the wound, J.G. mistook the man’s intentions, thereby sealing his wife’s doom. Back in England, J.G. is plagued by guilt over a loveless, childless marriage given over all too often to drink and to the prevailing sense that he has become the bee. (David Cronenberg, anyone?) As J.G. puts it, “My last words to her were full of poison.”

The play, for its part, represents “last words” of another kind. One feels in “Life Support” Gray and Bates wanting to bring to some sort of closure a feeling for the midlife-crisis play in which they have jointly specialized, through “Melon” and beyond, positioned this time amid the same deathbed environment adopted by Pinter himself in two fine plays, “Moonlight” and “A Kind of Alaska.” Enacting conversations he might have had with his wife, J.G. chews over the past , pausing to play Gwen’s favorite carol, “Silent Night,” with a devotion that can’t avoid teetering toward the mawkish.

Friends might help the situation, but those, it seems, are what the couple does not have; instead, J.G. has an agent, Julia (Carole Nimmons), who doubles as his sometime mistress, and a gay brother, Jack (Nickolas Grace), an actor, whose visits keep the play from being the solo tour de force that it otherwise might have been.

These interludes are among the least successful passages in a work whose supporting characters are as perfunctorily drawn as J.G.’s anguish is spewed from the gut. It’s no surprise, really, that Jack arrives bearing wry remarks about AIDS plays (“I had a nice little part — I survived into a bit of the second act”), just as the liaisons with Julia are folded in by rote. Hospital researcher Pat (Frank McCusker) exists as a sounding board and chess partner, as well as to populate a conclusion that exhibits a droll nod toward Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.”

The weight of the play, inevitably, falls on Bates, who sheds his familiar mannerisms (and vague air of camp) apparent at the start to give voice to the post-menopausal void into which he feels himself tumbling. “What a foul world,” he says, rancor intensified by the self-loathing that is an essential part of Gray’s anatomy. But if the play leaves one less shaken than it might, that arises out of a shopworn feel to the litany of regret that all the authorial honesty in the world cannot kick into life.

Life Support

Production

LONDON A Duncan C. Weldon, Alexander H. Cohen and Max Cooper presentation of an Yvonne Arnaud Theatre and Guildford production of a play by Simon Gray in one act. Directed by Harold Pinter.

Crew

Sets, Eileen Diss; costumes, Dany Everett; lighting, Mick Hughes; sound, Tom Lishman. Opened, reviewed Aug. 5, 1997, at the Aldwych Theatre; 1,176 seats; 25 ($ 40) top. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

With

Cast: Alan Bates (J.G.), Georgina Hale (Gwen), Frank McCusker (Pat), Carole Nimmons (Julia), Nickolas Grace (Jack).
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