The exhumation of an early work does an admirable dramatist few favors in the case of “Conversations After a Burial,” the sour and often pretentious first play from Yasmina Reza that was written well before both her Tony-winning “Art” and “The Unexpected Man,” which finally reaches New York next month. (Reza’s newest play, “Life x 3,” opens at the National in December, directed by Matthew Warchus.)
Premiered in 1987 in Paris, where it won several awards, the original “Conversations” may have conveyed a tristesse that has presumably been tossed overboard on the way to the show’s current Almeida Theater — and English-language — debut. In its place is a variably acted production from Howard Davies that elicits laughs, many of them inadvertent, at the relentless mean-spiritedness on view. As compensation, the evening does at least offer up Claire Bloom at her most naturally elegant and commanding, but to what end? She and the equally gifted David Calder are trapped in an unyielding snipefest.
Reza and her customary translator, Christopher Hampton, must have intended the play as Chekhovian reverie, notwithstanding the vaguely J.B. Priestley-style mystical flourishes — unscripted in the published text — with which the evening concludes. But as it translates across the footlights, “Conversations” is less an exercise in faux-Chekhov than simply a subpar imitation that taxes one’s patience long before the all too apt final exclamation, “At last!”
It’s inconceivable, for instance, that Chekhov would have permitted so monochromatically obnoxious a character as Alex (Paul Higgins), the youngest of three siblings of a newly deceased philanderer named Simon Weinberg. Graveside confrontations among Simon’s survivors in France’s rural Loiret give the play its title. No sooner has Alex stopped settling scores with dead dad than he lets rip on those unfortunate enough to be able to hear him. As played by Higgins at a gratingly high pitch, not to mention no noticeable chink in the character’s armor as written, Alex is so trying that it’s a wonder the theater doesn’t erupt into spontaneous applause when he’s requested by spinster sister Edith (Amanda Root) to go away.
Higgins commandeers the play unwisely, with several other performances (among them, a ceaselessly teary Root playing a self-described “dried-up old apple”) further suggesting that Davies perhaps intended a repeat of the full-throttle emotionalism of his tremendous concurrent National Theater revival of “All My Sons.” The difference is that these characters aren’t complex enough — if only there were some Chekhovian subtext! — to justify the outsized acting. As it is, scant surprise that Bloom and Calder steal acting honors, playing senior participants in a fairly war-like wake. Bloom’s effortless glamour (all black chic and thigh-high boots to match) complements Calder’s delightfully florid finesse, with the latter performer somewhat resembling Robert Altman as the family’s Baudelaire-quoting uncle, Pierre, the play’s apparent life force.
The two veteran thesps, separately and together, receive the most touching passages: Indeed, remarking “so wonderful being old, sod it,” Calder’s Pierre hints at a lifetime of rue. Otherwise, the language tends as frequently toward the melodramatically blunt — “Let me be your pain, Nathan,” says Elisa (Clare Holman) to a son busily making love atop his father’s grave — as the acting does towards the hesitant and/or the opaque. It’s probably not Holman’s fault, for instance, that Elisa — once Alex’s g.f., now his brother’s passing flame — seems scarcely more than a human boomerang, ricocheting between siblings just as she does back to the gathering she keeps wanting to leave. But it’s a sure sign of a more pervasive insecurity that the press night perf contained more line flubs and mistimed cues than one encounters in many a month. The exquisite ensemble clarity of “All My Sons” is lacking here.
At least “Conversations” is lovely to look at and also, often, to hear, with Dominic Muldowney’s original music joining various classical snatches to lend atmosphere to an unseasonably sun-drenched milieu (the play takes place during November) turning slowly to darkness — in more ways than one. Rob Howell’s suggestively crumbling, ivy-flecked set editorializes on events rather more subtly than the writing, while Mark Henderson’s dappled lighting pays its own hommage to the best Impressionist traditions of France.
Indeed, “Conversations” can be commended for being specifically Continental when it wants to be (there’s so much talk about pot au feu that the Almeida should serve up some in the theater bar) and in other ways oh-so-English. For all the Gallicisms of these none-too-gallant characters, only in England would six characters spend so much time in conversational pursuit of the weather.