This exasperating West End entry marks both the London debut of playwright Hannie Rayson and an aberrant low point in the careers of almost everyone else concerned. In her native Australia, Rayson’s elegy-cum-encomium apparently caused quite a stir and won various awards. But this won’t be the first show, Antipodean or otherwise, to lose something in the transfer, even if one might have assumed that clunky dramaturgy is clunky even Down Under. (Audiences apparently have agreed: Despite some surprisingly decent local reviews, play is calling it quits March 16 after a scant five weeks.)
What’s curious is that talents as estimable as actor Stephen Dillane and helmer Michael Blakemore were drawn to such a protracted exercise in name-dropping. We’re obliged to take the greatness of Dillane’s George entirely on faith, principally because this Oxford-educated academic revolutionary seems to have kept up a vigorous correspondence with, among others, Milton Friedman, Susan Sontag, and Isaac Asimov.
Is there any independent proof offered of George’s apparent bravura? Not a jot, though he was clearly seductive enough — both as a thinker (as written, he’s a sort of Che Guevara displaced to Oz) and as a sexual being — to ensnare three wives whose intertwining commentary on their late husband makes up much of the irritatingly fractured narrative.
But it’s just one of the numerous sticking points here that Rayson’s hagiography keeps insisting on character attributes that the play subverts. In the end, it seems as if we are being urged to mock George (on the domestic front, he’s more a Stalinist than anything else) as much as mourn him, in which case it’s not clear why we should care to begin with — beyond the fact that age 58 seems too young for anyone to die.
Perhaps sexual and social mores Down Under are just out of step with those halfway around the world, since most of the attitudes struck seem dated or even preposterous. It was nearly two decades ago that Blakemore was directing, and brilliantly, a far hipper English analysis of the same lapsed idealism — Michael Frayn’s “Benefactors,” a play that didn’t depend for effect on hoary turns of plot (a secret child?) that hark back to the worst excesses of Ibsenesque melodrama, albeit with a faux-feminist twist.
The play is a parade of cliches — “You taught me to live,” George’s friend Duffy (Richard Hope) offers by way of tribute — alongside an examination of the changing climate on campuses over time. (The action spans 30 years.) Embodying the latter shift is wife No. 2, Lindsay (Joanne Pearce), who comes on as the breathy replacement for wife No. 1 — the ever-so-English Beatrix (a disconcertingly matronly-looking Cheryl Campbell) — only to devolve into a fierce proponent of the very college-as-corporation ethos that sends George braying into his beard.
Not to mention finding solace with wife No. 3, the young Poppy (Anna Wilson-Jones), who we’re told is — wait for it! — “a beacon of sexual energy.” With such passions swirling around her, is it any wonder that George’s daughter Ana (Susannah Wise, in easily the production’s most likable perf) plays a mean “My Way” on the piano?
Truly bizarrely, a gifted creative team get virtually everything wrong, from an unhelpfully gray Peter J. Davison set that puts one in a funk from the outset to some mispronounced Italian that leaves you wondering how Beatrix has really adapted to life in her new Tuscan hometown of San Gimignano.
Perhaps played as farce, “Life After George” might generate some down-and-dirty heat; instead, it keeps shying away from the flat-out catfight it might have been in favor of one half-hearted riff or another on the limitations of libertarianism, while Paul Pyant’s frantic lighting signals yet another shift in time.
Dillane effects wan variations on the shambolic incandescence that brought applause in “The Real Thing,” and yet it’s all for naught. You’re left feeling that the most interesting person in “Life After George” is George’s unseen son, who seems to have spent most of his life avoiding his family. One can understand why.