New plays rarely arrive on the West End without being tested elsewhere, unless they pack the built-in box office wallop of, say, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in David Hare’s “The Breath of Life.” Would that such a respiratory gesture were available to “Calico,” the Michael Hastings drama that seems not so much untested as simply DOA. While the come-hither ad (a woman amid some crumpled sheets, hand close to her crotch) may spur tired businessmen to part with their hard-earned cash, everyone else is likely to be stupefied by the mixture of the sanctimonious and the tawdry in a play whose elevated literary milieu cannot camouflage its entirely meretricious pulse.
Early attention will surely hover around the professional stage debut of Romola Garai, the fast-rising British film actress (“I Capture the Castle,” “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights”) who gives one of those furious, frenetic performances that prove a quick turnoff to some while others start calling for awards. Playing Lucia Joyce, the younger of the two children born to the “Dubliners” scribe (Dermot Crowley) and his bluntly spoken beloved, Nora Barnacle (Imelda Staunton, looking unusually stymied by the task at hand), 21-year-old Garai cuts a galumphing figure of delusional obsession tipping into a psychosis that finds her tied to the bed of a Paris clinic by the calico straps of the title.
“It all sounds so exhausting,” she remarks early on, responding to the carnal pseudonyms rattled off by her beloved “Sam,” as she refers to the young Samuel Beckett (Daniel Weyman), her father’s spindly assistant, on whom Lucia has set her sights.
But the incipient dramatist’s sexual wordplay isn’t nearly as tiring as Garai’s frustrated attempts to carve some truth out of a biographical fantasia that trades in titillation in the absence of fact: In reality, it seems, nearly all Lucia’s diaries and correspondence have since been destroyed by the Joyce estate, whose apparent protectionism is only likely to intensify after this play.
Let’s be clear: It’s not that one has to sanctify and/or whitewash the memory of the famous. But isn’t it as offensive to trawl literature for the sole purposes of reductive and factitious biographical posturing? (Oh, and one other thing: Do legendary writers really speak the way they write, as Hastings goes to florid lengths to suggest here? I doubt it.)
“Calico,” of course, needs to persuade the uninitiated that its characters matter. And so we have lines like Nora’s encomium to the effect that Joyce is “the world’s greatest novelist of books” (what other kind of novelist is there?).
At the same time, lest the man who would go on to write “Finnegan’s Wake” seem too dauntingly highbrow a figure for mainstream consumption, Hastings busily cuts him — and the audience’s intelligence — down to size. We’re meant to chuckle knowingly at Nora’s description of “Ulysses” as a book “nobody can understand (or) read,” an assessment echoed by the Jewish-American caricature, Issy Van Randwyck’s grossly acted New Yorker, Helen, who has got her claws into Giorgio (Jamie Beamish), the opera singer also-ran who was the Joyces’ older child.
With Helen spitting judgments about “this family with a notorious book,” Hastings liberally adds to the notoriety, positing the possibility of incest between the glaucoma sufferer Joyce and his unhinged daughter, who dismisses her family as “a bunch of inebriate nomads led by a blind man.”
Hastings has previously traveled the path of mental disturbance via his best-known play, “Tom and Viv.” That “Calico” follows much the same outlines — replace a famous poet’s nutty wife with a famous novelist’s troubled daughter — justifies in part why one is taken aback at a program entry honoring “a restlessness in all (Hastings’) work, as if it is a sin to repeat himself.”
Well, at least “Tom and Viv,” in production terms, was an upstanding piece of work. Stuck with a far stagier, more diffuse play, director Edward Hall piles up wrong decisions with the same misguided brio that finds a live pianist, Helen Washington, by the lip of the stage to help set the mood. (No, she doesn’t play “Losing My Mind.”)
Francis O’Connor’s two-tiered set, with art deco flourishes appropriate to 1920s Paris, merely muddies the action, and it doesn’t help that the cast has been directed to freeze in one section of the stage while things happen up above or down below.
Worse, virtually every revelation, no matter how cheesy, seems to end with a mad dash into the wings, as if there were a bus waiting to take the cast up the road to, say, the first-class revival of Beckett’s “Endgame.” We should all be so lucky.