In a London theater suffused at the moment with grand and flashy star performances, there can be few sights more quietly harrowing than the gravely beautiful Cherie Lunghi gone ashen --- not to mention nearly to her grave --- in despair. A gifted actress far less widely known than she ought to be, Lunghi is the unforgettable epicenter of "Passion Play," the Peter Nichols play that has come back to blistering life at the Donmar Warehouse 19 years after its Royal Shakespeare Co. premiere. Equally underrecognized --- as he is at seeming constant pains to remind the British theater industry --- is veteran scribe Nichols ("Privates on Parade," "Joe Egg"), though Michael Grandage's breakthrough production should by rights change that. "Passion Play" is one of those rare evenings in which everyone involved --- the wonderful designer, Christopher Oram, included --- seems to have pulled out all the stops, although it is never more startling than when a deflated Lunghi is at her most still.

In a London theater suffused at the moment with grand and flashy star performances, there can be few sights more quietly harrowing than the gravely beautiful Cherie Lunghi gone ashen — not to mention nearly to her grave — in despair. A gifted actress far less widely known than she ought to be, Lunghi is the unforgettable epicenter of “Passion Play,” the Peter Nichols play that has come back to blistering life at the Donmar Warehouse 19 years after its Royal Shakespeare Co. premiere. Equally underrecognized — as he is at seeming constant pains to remind the British theater industry — is veteran scribe Nichols (“Privates on Parade,” “Joe Egg”), though Michael Grandage’s breakthrough production should by rights change that. “Passion Play” is one of those rare evenings in which everyone involved — the wonderful designer, Christopher Oram, included — seems to have pulled out all the stops, although it is never more startling than when a deflated Lunghi is at her most still.

It’s tempting to think of Nichols’ play as a response of sorts to a previous Donmar reclamation, “The Real Thing,” just as one could easily have imagined Lunghi or her vibrant co-star, Cheryl Campbell, playing Stoppard’s adulterous heroine, Annie, in a previous staging of that play. Nichols and Stoppard premiered their plays within a year of each other, not long after a third English dramatist, Harold Pinter, penned in the 1978 “Betrayal” his own cunning contribution to the marital rondelay genre.

As Nichols’ (ultimately ironic) title suggests, “Passion Play” shares with “The Real Thing” an interest in the mysterious workings of passion and sex — and what, if anything, either of them might have to do with love.

The answer isnot a lot, with Martin Jarvis’ Jim even banishing that particular four-letter word by close of play. “The Real Thing” may end — somewhat conveniently, it has to be said — with the sounds of “I’m a Believer, ” but “Passion Play” remains the braver account of the ravages of a desire whose ability to cause pain almost defies belief.

Nichols’ device won’t surprise anyone who remembers Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” some 30-odd years ago or Alan Bennett’s “The Lady in the Van” this very season. As occurs in those plays, Nichols is dramatizing the bifurcated self. James (James Laurenson) has been married for 25 years to Lunghi’s Eleanor when he becomes smitten with Kate (Nicola Walker), the much-younger photographer-partner of one of James’ now-dead chums.

So far so fraught, and then Nichols doubles the stakes. First to emerge is Jarvis’ camp, droll Jim, a gleeful alter ego given to overt orgasmic thrusts, just as Eleanor’s more florid other half — Campbell’s full-maned and kind-eyed Nell — initially appears, her back to the audience, reading out Kate’s incriminating declaration of love for James.

“Passion Play” was seen briefly on Broadway — minus the word “Play” — in a misbegotten Marshall Mason production in 1983, starring Frank Langella and Cathryn Damon and a minxlike (and Tony-nommed) Roxanne Hart, as Kate. But it’s utterly ludicrous to divest this work of the associations, be they religious or musical, conjured up by a highly specific and purposeful title. First off is the considerable comic mileage that Nichols gets out of the music-besotted Eleanor’s commitment to her choir, so that James’ secret trysts with Kate must be squeezed in during the “agnus dei” but before the “lux aeterna” lest he give the game away.

And it’s no accident that the widow of Kate’s (unseen) flame is tellingly named Agnes, even if there’s nothing Godlike about her careful manipulation of an increasingly sordid scenario. Gillian Barge plays the role in full embittered (if apple-cheeked) sail, notwithstanding a disconcerting number of line fluffs on opening night. It’s meant as no criticism of Walker’s distinctly cool Kate that there’s something nice about having the mistress be far less sexy than the women whom she is destroying — especially when played by such acutely physical actresses as Lunghi and Campbell.

At times, one feels the author overreaching himself. The nerves exposed during the play are raw enough without making James — who rather helpfully works in art restoration, images of the Crucifixion included — into a soulmate of sorts to Jesus. (That said, there’s a brutal irony typical of the play as a whole in James’ keen pictorial anticipation of “a bleeding corpse,” not realizing that he and his wife are well on their way to being nailed to their own personal cross.)

Women won’t be alone in pondering the depiction of Eleanor/Nell in the second act, complete with a would-be suicide — “I love my children; tell them I love them,” says Nell, sounding tearily like Dickens’s Little Nell — that contains a sustainedly elegant play’s only wince-inducing lapse. In the year 2000, there’s something a shade insulting about the readiness of the wife to wilt, when in this day and age many women would be more than happy to show James first the sofa and then the door.

Still, even shifting social mores can’t detract from the ceaseless power of a production that marks by far the career high point to date of a director who — in this minority opinion — has only now delivered on the lofty claims made for him in the past, hiserstwhile (and New York-bound) Donmar revival of “Good” included. (In December, Grandage returns again to this venue to direct “Merrily We Roll Along,” the Stephen Sondheim musical.) It’s not just the uniform excellence of his cast, not least in occasional “crowd” scenes so deftly executed that they constitute their own running comic thread to the production. Equally accomplished are the shifts between the real selves and their less unfettered other halves, the two merging ever more seamlessly until the conclusion, when the old divisions come back into play.

At this point Grandage and Nichols together deliver their greatest coup, suggesting in a devastating fade-out that nothing has changed and yet everything has. There, as they were at the start, are James and Eleanor, together again. But as the lights dim, we see the paths selected by their hidden selves juxtaposed against the lies they have chosen to live, the music having shifted from the “St. Matthew Passion” to “In the Bleak Midwinter.” In a flash, it’s evident that a play begun in rapture has become a requiem, with Nichols sounding his own mournful — and passionate — lament for life’s passionless, living dead.

Passion Play

(DONMAR WAREHOUSE; 251 SEATS; $:24 ($ 48) TOP)

Production

LONDON A Donmar Warehouse presentation of a play in two acts by Peter Nichols. Directed by Michael Grandage. Sets and costumes, Christopher Oram.

Crew

Lighting, Hartley T.A. Kemp; sound, Fergus O'Hare. Opened, reviewed April 18, 2000. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

With

Kate ..... Nicola Walker James ..... James Laurenson Eleanor ..... Cherie Lunghi Agnes ..... Gillian Barge Jim ..... Martin Jarvis Nell ..... Cheryl Campbell
With: Ruth Brennan, Toni Kanal, Arthur Kelly, Francis Maguire, Peter Winnall.

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