The date is 1963, the dramaturgy rather more antique in “A Letter of Resignation,” the pedestrian Hugh Whitemore play distinguished by two central performances that are anything but routine. Over the years Whitemore has provided a virtuosic showcase for actors as varied as Glenda Jackson (“Stevie”), Judi Dench (“Pack of Lies”) and Derek Jacobi (“Breaking the Code”), and his exalted leads this time around are Edward Fox and the wonderful Clare Higgins. If the writing rarely reaches its hoped-for excavation of the English stiff upper lip, the acting conjures up its own grand theatrical past.
If Fox can bring down the house with a partridge joke and Higgins has the audience catching a collective breath when her character chokes on the word “begonia,” the play itself is unlikely to prompt comparable spasms of emotion. Still, some will find the Masterpiece Theater style extremely soothing. (As such, it’s the antithesis to the boorish “HRH,” the West End’s competing history play.)
In a Scottish castle one summer evening, Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (Fox) is visited by private secretary Widdowes (Julian Wadham) and secret service rep Ian Ritchie (John Warnaby) to discuss war minister Profumo, whose “letter of resignation” would bring to a climax the scandal that toppled the Macmillan government in October of ’63. (Those wanting a full account of this decisive moment in British politics, not to mention attitudes toward sex, should rent Michael Caton-Jones’ 1988 film “Scandal,” about the Profumo affair.)
While much of the first act is given over to armchair regurgitation of history, Whitemore has other things on his mind. Macmillan, the play implies, was impeded in his handling of the crisis by his own awareness of the long-standing adultery of wife Lady Dorothy (Higgins) with bisexual Scots statesman Robert Boothby. As an established cuckold, then, the prime minister was in a hateful bind, forced to take action against someone whose peccadilloes struck all too close to home.
The heart of the evening lies in an unexpected flashback in which Lady Dorothy lays bare the liaison that struck at Macmillan’s own sense of decorum (and produced a child). For most of the play, she’s a bustling, no-nonsense, middle-aged woman played by Higgins with a flawless sense of matronly good cheer. But Whitemore also wants to show a mismatched couple’s earlier selves even as he asks that quintessentially English question: In a society so repressive, what good is love compared with the power of sudden passion?
The topic might seem more momentous under Christopher Morahan’s direction if the play creaked less. But just when predictability sets in, a walrus-like Fox will raise a querulous cry of distress or Higgins will issue a knowing smile. At such moments, you forgive the moldy theatrics to take pleasure in the sort of high-style performance that, happily, never dates.