You can tell that David Haig, the author of the “The Good Samaritan,” is an actor (a fine one, in fact, who appeared in the second Broadway cast of “Art”), since he knows how to serve his colleagues from the other side of the footlights. As a play, it’s easy to pick apart “The Good Samaritan,” which has undeniable lapses both in credibility and structure. But as a writer for actors, Haig commands the respect with which John Dove’s troupe of actors rewards him in spades. And why not, you think, as one character after another gets his or her chance to shine? Very few playwrights are quite so democratic about allowing virtually their entire cast a share of the spotlight, and if Claudie Blakley has a double reason to be grateful, that’s merely because Haig has provided the young actress with the role of any burgeoning performer’s career.
Blakley plays Carol, a working-class, knife-wielding blonde whose bark may be considerably worse than her bite. A single mother raising 7-year-old Tracy (Debbie Brazenor) — another child, rather portentously named Charity, was stillborn — Carol is newly arrived at the London offices of the Samaritans charity demanding to speak to a woman.
Instead, she is paired off with a 40-year-old helper named Alan (Julian Wadham), and both their lives are changed. The problem, of course, arises with a gradually smitten Carol’s awareness that the middle-class Alan has been happily married for 20 years and has three kids to show for it. Indeed Alan’s wife Rachel (Jane Gurnett) is on the other side of the door of Laurie Dennett’s clever and flexible set, answering her share of Samaritans calls from strangers in distress. (One question: Would Rachel be quite so glamorously dressed?)
Spouse or no spouse, Alan simply cannot breach professional ethics and responds to a sudden embrace from Carol by flinging his arms wide so as not to return her touch. At the same time, her wounded, aggressive energy exerts an allure, which Blakley, with unshowy bravura, makes manifest throughout. (Her description of sex with her errant drug addict husband is as hilarious as the pain that underpins the disturbed lives behind it.) As Blakley presents her, Carol is a lippy wise-ass damaged beyond her years, and only she knows the extent of the damage she may herself continue to cause.
It’s with some hesitancy, then, that one finds the two in the second act sharing a south London park bench (and some dope) and “going on holiday” while seated side-by-side. Across the cultural and social divide has arisen a very real affection, embracing Billy Connolly and Bob Dylan and a very much out-of-the-office kiss. So it’s not that surprising when Carol, back with the Samaritans, flies into a fury at being met with a woman helper. Having struck up a rapport with Alan, she knows what she wants, and even Polly Adams’ sublimely kind fellow charity-worker Muriel — she’s forever ending sentences with an utterly uncondescending “my love” — isn’t medicine enough. (Adams’ performance, meanwhile, is so expert that an entire family history seems encoded in her reminder to herself to buy mint jelly to go with the roast lamb she will cook for her visiting daughter.)
The tussle between Alan and Carol — sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce — provides the arc to a play that isn’t always as artless as it might be. Lest the play devolve into a two-hander, Haig introduces various subplots, the most affecting of which involves a shy Scottish transvestite, “Louise” (rendingly played by the sweet-faced Daniel Crowder). But one remains rather too aware of Haig, a Samaritans worker himself for five years, covering all bases, whether in an effort to placate a charity that has rarely if ever been dramatized or simply to inform an audience uninitiated in the Samaritans’ ways. (Some 35% of those who phone in are silent callers, we’re told: exactly the sort of thing the characters would already know.)
Still, just when you yearn for some finer shading and nuance, along comes one performer or another to silence all qualms. Much of the first act resembles a telephonic fugue, with the helpers taking the phones in turn, generating an often comic counterpoint of human eccentricity deepening — most uncomically — into pain. (One caller is sure he’s under siege from MI5; another, by the end of the conversation, may no longer be conscious.) The play may be principally concerned with the possibility of doing the decent thing — as an enraged Carol describes it, the helpers are nothing but “do-good wankers” — but “The Good Samaritan” is fortunate to be in the hands of a company that could not be bettered.