Nicky Silver’s U.K. career gets off to a giddy start with the Hope for Glory production of “The Maiden’s Prayer,” now enjoying an all-too-brief tenancy at the Bush through Feb. 5. The same company has plans to stage Silver’s earlier (and far more commercial) “The Food Chain,” making this Off Broadway writer one of the few dramatists of his generation to have an accommodating English home. If so, that’s good news for a writer whose neuroses may seem no less quintessentially New York than his characters’ tendencies to bare their guts upon first acquaintance. (Still, no matter: Chekhov does much the same in “Uncle Vanya.”)
Under Sarah Esdaile’s smart direction, Silver’s structurally bumpy if often hilarious play — premiered to mixed reviews at New York’s Vineyard Theater early in 1998 — is revealed to possess a core capable of export that is as melancholy as it is brittle. In Silver’s world, or so one feels, it’s as if to alight on one mood alone would be to deny our experience of that added dimension where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry — so, instead, you meet for lunch.
Social occasions, indeed, are crucial to the trajectory of “The Maiden’s Prayer,” which begins at the most wounding of weddings and proceeds on to meals and drinks and the prospect of a second, surprising nuptial agreement.
Cynthia (Madeleine Potter) is marrying Taylor (Adrian Rawlins), who once had a relationship with Cynthia’s sister, Libby (Debora Weston), who in turn becomes best friends with Taylor’s oldest (and gay) chum, Paul (Michael Simkins), an advertising copywriter. The ever-promiscuous Paul arrives solo for the wedding, having surrendered his latest pickup to the hurlyburly of the Long Island Expressway.
That leaves Andrew — Eric Loren, as the play’s resident Everytrick, insofar as he plays multiple roles — to enact most campily the comic whirligig of contemporary life, regardless of sexuality, where the most satisfying outlet for one’s energies lies in trashing the inventory at Bloomingdale’s.
At first, the emphasis is on Libby, the proverbial sister of the bride whose slide into upmarket prostitution takes a possibly redemptive turn that is one of Silver’s canny narrative twists. As the play proceeds, however, her hysteria becomes part of a larger tapestry of desire and desolation that goes on to include the recovering alcoholic, Taylor, and his quickly departed wife, who responds to the loss of their first child by retreating from the marriage.
With references to Bloomie’s and the board game Risk, Silver’s writing is nothing if not site- (or pop culture-)specific, so there’s something bracing in watching how easily it plays in an Anglo-American company’s hands. To be fair, the distaff players outshine the men, even if Loren — at the perf caught — was clearly relishing two impromptu moments as opportunities to woo the audience even more shamelessly. (The first unscripted encounter involved Nathalie Gibbs’ rather recalcitrant set, a cantankerously paneled exercise in chic that is clearly more trouble than it’s worth.)
Simkins does well enough by the set pieces of which Silver is so notably fond (his character involves an amazing litany of Paul’s numerous pickups), but he doesn’t seem physically comfortable in the part, any more than the appealing Rawlins seems entirely attuned to Taylor’s own eleventh-hour self-revelations; the performance could use fewer faux Brando-isms.
The play’s American actresses, in performance terms, are its dually delightful raison d’etre. Potter needs no introduction to Merchant-Ivory groupies, and will be seen later this year in the producer-director team’s latest, “The Golden Bowl.” But there’s something quite startling about seeing her ethereal, fragile beauty pressed into the services of a contemporary role in which — freed from bustles and bodices — a long-quenched fire can suddenly burn. Listen to her incantatory “I’m fine” at the end of the first act, when she clearly is anything but, as well as (later) her mournful appeal to her husband, “Don’t you ever want to hit me?”
Weston, a London-based Yank with a hefty list of local credits, is no stranger to fiery playing, but she’s rarely had a role that deploys her gifts so well. In her hands, Libby is an ambulatory exposed nerve who stays just this side of tolerable, not least because she laces every assault with a quite fearless wit. (Weston is funny even putting out a cigarette.) Snapping “I’m Libby” upon first meeting Paul, this woman always seems to assume the worst, so one can’t help but smile when her new, uh, position as a hooker looks as if it might even result in happiness.
The “might,” of course, is key to Silver’s world, where love is as conditional as sex is transient. But you’ve got to commend a play that comes down on the side neither of nihilism nor of sentimentality but seemingly redefines the middle way: There aren’t many plays — British or American — that make indecision itself a state of grace.