Just in time to dampen one’s holidays spirits comes “Ancient Lights,” Shelagh Stephenson’s entry in the houseguests-from-hell sweepstakes, here given a faux-serious spin.
Bea (Joanne Pearce) has decided to broaden the seasonal festivities in her northern English home to include not only daughter Joni (Sheridan Smith) and newish partner Thaddeus (Dermot Crowley) but an old college chum, Tom (Don McManus), who in the intervening years has become a major Hollywood star. The lanky eager-beaver Tom shows up from California — his first request is for a “low-fat muffin,” just in case you’ve missed his place of origin — with Iona (Ruth Gemmell) in tow, and a video camera, too.
Only a select subset of us (I hope) would welcome into our home visitors ready to film every moment, even in a “Big Brother”-ish era that might give even Orwell pause. And Bea’s willingness seems especially suspect in rural England. Undaunted, Stephenson proceeds from one implausibility to the next, dropping more revelations along the way than most celebrants have Christmas gifts.
By play’s end, the floppy-haired narcissist Tom is most decisively not what he seemed at the start, nor, practically, is anyone else. That is less due to an authorial gift for characterization than to a sense that Stephenson’s creations — not to mention the audience — are in the hands of a none-too-masterful puppeteer.
Stephenson has had considerable success at the Hampstead before, with “The Memory of Water” and “An Experiment With an Airpump,” both of which were subsequently seen Off Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club. And line for line, there’s no denying this former actress’ good ear (“Go to Hull” snaps one incipient punster), not to mention her welcome interest in a phenomenon — our culture’s ever-burgeoning obsession with celebrity — about which too much can never be said.
But not for the first time with this dramatist, “Ancient Lights” promises more than it actually delivers en route to becoming the latest variant on the sort of play the Hampstead has done so well in the past — a “Big Chill”-esque encounter between one-time chums arrived at a day, and night, of reckoning (cf. Stephen Jeffreys’ “Valued Friends” at this venue over a decade ago).
Tom and Thaddeus both harbor secrets, while Joni — named for Joni Mitchell(!) — thirsts after the fame that has sent Tom reeling. Give the characters some marijuana — and a bout or two of sleeplessness — and it all comes tumbling out, except that the “truth” in this play seems decidedly phony. (So, for that matter, does Tanya McCallin’s weirdly airy set, whose Spartan chic hardly looks capable of surviving a fierce Northumbrian winter.)
A failed novelist who hopes the visiting Tom might be his ticket to the big time, Crowley’s Thaddeus fields every line with real zing, and one feels that McManus, a fine American newcomer to the London theater, might do the same if he were freed of remarks like, “It’s great to be here where Christmas really began.” (The actor is appearing in Britain on an Equity exchange with Janie Dee, now Off Broadway in “Comic Potential.”)
At times, one can’t tell whether Stephenson feels for the dissembling Tom or merely thinks him a fool, and one has to credit McManus and director Ian Brown for finding even a shred of gallantry in Tom’s prevailing gaucheness.
Pearce’s characteristically breathy Bea keeps busy dodging her guests’ camcorder when she’s not blow-drying a goose with the dispatch one expects from a woman who has made a successful career in PR. Gemmell’s Iona remains a (badly accented) cipher from start to finish.
There’s a juicy play to be written about people assumed to be friends who, in the final analysis, are bound together by pretense. But “Ancient Lights” can’t decide whether it wants to send these people up or leave us weeping for them, which may be why, its title notwithstanding, a theatergoer is left in the dark.