Emotional detachment takes an enervating turn in the arid new revival of “Otherwise Engaged,” the 1975 Simon Gray play that brings Richard E. Grant back to the West End for the first time in nearly 13 years. Cracking open the closed-off world of a man who just wants to be left alone to listen to Wagner, Gray’s once-celebrated drama sputters to a halt in a Simon Curtis staging that has a glassy-eyed blank where its bruised and bruising heart might be.
The result doesn’t help a narrative whose nascent smugness emerges too frequently for comfort, particularly if you’re not one of the Oxbridge-educated literary swells out of whom Gray has made his career. This fall’s now-departed revival of Christopher Hampton’s “The Philanthropist” showed that a play of the same vintage, and much the same milieu, can still carry an affective sting. But Gray’s portrait of the male ego in hyperliterate collapse packs surprisingly little wallop: Auds not innately on the play’s wavelength may wish they were otherwise engaged.
Or, perhaps, that someone like Stephen Dillane were playing Simon, the “Parsifal” obsessive whose clean, booklined home turns out to be no safe haven. As acted by Grant without any of the shambolic charm required to seduce an audience into his plight, Simon emerges as a semi-catatonic figure in need of clinical examination. He’s a would-be medical specimen, not the personification of middle-class menopausal rot Gray clearly had in mind. (Tom Courtenay and then Dick Cavett inherited Alan Bates’ role on Broadway.)
Scarcely has Simon cleaned the vinyl of his recording before various intruders storm Simon Higlett’s pleasing set to take up one unwanted perch after another on the sofa. (Quite why Simon doesn’t lock the door, or at least put some furniture up against it, is one of those questions it’s better not to ask.)
Dave (a likable Liam Garrigan) is the scruffy lodger and sociology student who pops in now and again to cadge money off his landlord. Stephen (Peter Wight), Simon’s brother, teaches literature at a good public school, where he anguishes about becoming assistant headmaster. On one front, at least, he has the credentials: He can talk about farting with the best of the erudite yet down-and-dirty English.
The worst of that species comes with the arrival of Jeff (Anthony Head), a literary critic who finds literature “a racket” — and whose equivalent remains fully evident today. (He gloats in being “English to my marrow’s marrow.”) Jeff sprays vitriol across a broad array of targets, from Australians and homosexuals to the wife who’s left him for a Cambridge don. Proceeding to ring the death knell for a U.K. “finished at last,” Jeff sounds like a modern-day John of Gaunt from Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” and the production gathers a head of steam, however nasty, whenever he’s around.
Each character, of course, acts as a prick of sorts to Simon’s neutered sense of self. Former schoolmate Wood (David Bamber) speaks touchingly of being “incapacitated by devotion” only to find that his much-younger fiancee has just had a fling with Simon.
And in Gray’s anatomy, women aren’t so much the fairer sex as merely ferocious in a different way. Davina (Amanda Ryan) is a young literary hopeful quick to bare her breasts if they can secure her a publishing deal. (The otherwise reined-in Simon’s unabashed response: “I fancy you because of your breasts. I have a yearning for your breasts.”)
All of which leaves Beth (the expert Amanda Drew), Simon’s actual wife, to return home bearing a revelation that only confirms her husband’s distaste for our “zestfully overexplanatory age.” What happens when the explanations involve infidelity? You wince and bear it, or so would Simon if Beth hadn’t upped the verbal ante by calling him a “freak.”
His strategy for living, one feels, is both his salvation and a lie: Simon can continue on what Wood calls life’s “silver-pointed” path by not letting events sink beneath his resiliently opaque skin. One person’s freakishness is another’s deliberate way forward.
Has Simon paid a price for his method of self-protection? Undoubtedly, though Grant’s performance barely registers as much. Where another actor might have reveled in a defensive aspishness that is here neither withering nor elegant, Grant suggests little more than a quizzical onlooker to an ongoing charade. “My eyes may have been glazed but my heart was touched,” we’re told near the end. Well, half of that is true.