A time-honored British genre — the drama of disaffected idealists — is engagingly resurrected in the Donmar Warehouse premiere of “Helpless,” which may well be the best play of its type not written by Doug Lucie or David Hare, both of whose work it recalls. “Helpless” marks a sometimesexasperating but more frequently enjoyable return to form for dramatist Dusty Hughes, a fringe and subsidized theater mainstay of the mid-1980s who of late has written primarily for TV.
To be sure, the play’s various setups and plot pivots can be as obvious as Hughes’ perhaps unwitting insistence on giving his male characters all the best lines. But there’s pathos as well as charm in watching a disparate sextet navigate the shifting ideological shoals of New Labour in the run-up and aftermath to Tony Blair’s election landslide. Just when it looks as if “Helpless” may be getting a bit too speech-heavy, along comes a sustained air guitar riff to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and a requiem for the commitment of a bygone era suddenly seems (in a retro way) hip.
You don’t have to mist over at the sounds of Crosby, Stills and Nash to have a good time at “Helpless,” but it certainly won’t hurt. (The group’s “Helplessly Hoping,” heard during a scene change, usefully incorporates the play’s title; so , more exactly, does Neil Young’s “Helpless,” which gets aired elsewhere.) Both the play — and Robin Lefevre’s deft staging — are too smart to fully indulge state-of-the-nation sentiments like “17 years of a Tory government, it wears you down”: this from the ex-Trotskyite “serial actor” Will (Ron Cook), who is the play’s closest equivalent to an authorial alter ego. Hughes’ characters remain people first and placards a distant second, even if it may be their particular curse that the two so easily get confused.
Causes, we quickly learn, have played an important part in the lives of Will and ex-wife Claire (Charlotte Cornwell), the latter a former revolutionary and African aid worker who has returned to her native England in semi-disgrace (and rebuffed by an unseen Frenchman). Embarked on her own separate quest is the couple’s daughter Frankie (Rachael Stirling), who in her youth wrote a love letter to Castro (!) and is now enmeshed in a romance (or two) that is somewhat more realistic. While onetime boyfriend Ben (Craig Kelly, endearingly repeating the aggressive embrace of rejection that he perfected on TV’s “Queer as Folk”) pursues her over several years, Frankie instead weds her godfather of sorts, Hugh (Art Malik), a chicly attired historian who has made a mint masquerading as a bestselling woman novelist by the name of Alice Wilde (! again).
At times, “Helpless” seems to have more plot than is helpful, and Hughes’ last scene could less baldly amount to one revelatory duologue after another. But the issues, thank heavens, are generally grounded in their speakers’ needs and anxieties, whether Ben is juggling Frankie’s farewell to him with his own frantic manning of a courier company’s telephones — that scene offers Britain’s own mini-variant on Off Broadway’s phone-frenzied “Fully Committed” — or Will is deflecting his own middle-age malaise on to Mrs. Thatcher, who gets dismissed as “deranged old baggage from Grantham.” And why not, since the Tory leader is a readier target than leftist Will’s own easily bruised sense of self, especially now that he’s landed a sex therapist-girlfriend Kate (Julie Graham) given to remarks like “the eggs are waiting.”
Working on Tom Piper’s minimalist set, the performers occupy their parts as if to the banner-waving born — though there’s not a lot that Stirling, Diana Rigg’s daughter in her professional stage debut, can do with the overinsistence of Frankie’s supposed radiance. (By contrast, the ever-commanding Cornwell by now deserves a role not requiring her to look pained.) “Helpless” mostly belongs to its men, starting with Kelly, who gets an explosive “petrol pump” joke that audiences will be trading for years.
Malik’s discernible cool, in turn, sits well with the vaguely smug Hugh, whose best friend of yore ends up being his present-day father-in-law. In a class-conscious class all his own is the feisty Cook, playing a cynic scarcely content to look back in anger when he can rail happily against the present. “I’m angry! I’m rejuvenated!” Cook’s Will exclaims in a delicious moment of at least partial self-mockery. And with this actor leading the charge, “Helpless” helps rejuvenate a vanishing species: a play of ideas that are inseparable from its given community’s fragile egos and ids.