The Hampstead Theater's more or less appalling track record of late continues with "Love Me Tonight," the new Nick Stafford play. Even the most imaginative of stagings couldn't salvage Stafford's script, which reaches peaks of inadvertent hilarity with lines like, "Perhaps happiness for you has become confused with excitement."

A correction was made to this review on Nov. 9, 2004.

The Hampstead Theater’s more or less appalling track record of late continues with “Love Me Tonight,” the new Nick Stafford play whose hortatory title is likely to go unmet by audiences. Show will get more ink than it deserves because of the behind-the-scenes presence of actress Kathy Burke, here working none too persuasively as a director. But even the most imaginative of stagings couldn’t salvage Stafford’s script, which reaches peaks of inadvertent hilarity with lines like, “Perhaps happiness for you has become confused with excitement.” That remark comes true only at the final curtain, which finds one both happy and excited to get away at last.

The playwright deserves credit on one front. In a country famously wary of inward-looking domestic drama, Stafford has bravely written the most hermetic and artificial of family-in-crisis plays, in which not one of the four characters gives the slightest impression of existing in the real world. For 2½ long hours, a middle-aged couple married 30 years talk at and across one another and their two grown children, employing phrases like “my what-would-have-been-if-only.” (Come again?)

While the aim clearly was to reveal the fissures made uniquely possible by grief, everything about the writing suggests the sort of psychobabble-heavy exercise in self-expression that even the American theater these days finds a bit rich. By the time the clan starts debating whether the fatal cancer of the teenage Vince marked “the ossification of our animosity,” more than one spectator may find his or her bones responding in kind.

In another context, one could imagine the comedian in Burke sending the entire script up, so it’s not altogether surprising that her directorial contribution to the evening seems to consist of supplying levity, whether appropriate or not. Playing the elder brother to the deceased Vince, Nicolas Tennant resorts to making funny faces to stir the house, leaving Amanda Abbington as therapist-sister Sian to play the kind of termagant who uses “jettison” as a verb. And is later heard asking her father, “Dad, did your dad love you?”

Things perk up a bit with the older generation, as might be expected from performers of the caliber of Hugh Ross and Linda Bassett. Ross’ singularly rhythmic voice can make a reference to “you and Sue” sound almost musical, though even he can’t explain the patience of a parent who would put up with a daughter’s description of alcohol as “truth’s lubricant” — original, or what?

And no one does aggrieved rage better than Bassett, who has the misfortune to be compared by her daughter to a poltergeist when London has just hosted a separate (and very good) play in Clare Pollard’s “The Weather,” in which a similarly ferocious child actually summons up a poltergeist of her own to spook her parents.

In context, it’s no surprise that Bassett’s finest moments are strictly nonverbal. On more than one occasion, we look on transfixed as the actress strides purposefully offstage in full view of the audience, who probably are wondering how they could join her.

Love Me Tonight

Hampstead Theater, London; 325 Seats; £22 ($40.64) Top

Production

A Hampstead Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Nick Stafford. Directed by Kathy Burke.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Bob Bailey; lighting, Chris Davey; sound, Kal Ross. Opened, reviewed Oct. 28, 2004. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Sian - Amanda Abbington Stuart - Nicolas Tennant Roy - Hugh Ross Moira - Linda Bassett
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