A connoisseur of diverse cultural pursuits slips up with “President of an Empty Room,” the first stage play from Steven Knight, the novelist, Oscar-nommed screenwriter (“Dirty Pretty Things”) and co-creator of TV’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Set in a Cuban cigar factory at a moment of crisis for senior roller Miguel Fernando (Paul Hilton), Howard Davies’ National Theater premiere has atmosphere to burn thanks to a remarkable traverse set from Bunny Christie that bisects the Cottesloe’s intimate playing space.
But the production itself feels fatally remote from material with which the multiracial company does not connect. Davies may be in fiery Latinate mode at the moment, between this and the National’s concurrent “House of Bernarda Alba,” but there was more authentic passion to his revival of “Mourning Becomes Electra,” in which Hilton looked considerably more fulfilled.
Playing a self-proclaimed president who summons up a faux-democracy in a workplace where, as he puts it, “I’m not even in charge of myself,” the hard-working thesp struggles to keep on course a narrative that keeps getting thrown off-kilter. It doesn’t help that Hilton gets the lion’s share of the play’s fruitier writing, from early talk of wanting “to blunt the blade of the day” (whatever that means) onwards.
Miguel is in mourning for young g.f. Alexandra, who has set sail from Cuba for Key West, leaving her erstwhile lover in greater thrall than ever to heroin and incipient madness. While those in Miguel’s charge want to listen to Michael Jackson, Miguel does his bit to resist the gradual Americanization of Cuba, even if this play constantly begs the question whether so Anglicized a view of the same island represents a preferable fate.
With a violinist (Gabriel Fonseca) conveniently at the ready, the writing backs away from the magic realism to which it presumably aspires. The tobacco “is not happy,” we are told in a notable instance of anthropomorphizing the weed. But though Mark Henderson’s shimmering lighting captures the exact “lemony sunlight” indicated in the script, the language lands with a gentle thud when it should float, and even the best efforts of Jim Carter as a mustachioed, voodoo-embracing philosophe can’t lift events to a more-than-prosaic plane.
The rest of the company appear not to inhabit the same play, notwithstanding Knight’s insistence in the text that “anyone of any race can play any part.” (Translation: London doesn’t come naturally by the Latino actors available in, say, New York.) As was apparent in the Hampstead Theater local preem of Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics,” a play with exactly the same setting, British actors like the chance afforded by such scripts to let their hair down.
Stephen Moore seems to have been airlifted from a different planet to play a onetime revolutionary deafened by cannon fire, with Anthony O’Donnell on hand as the crippled recipient of some of the more, uh, personal services of Dona Albina (Noma Dumezweni), the head of what is here rather delightfully described as “company morale.”
There are revelations aplenty, alongside the hint that Knight’s evanescent play is actually a protracted political allegory in disguise: A reference to Guantanamo Bay provides a momentary jolt.
But for a parable of not-so-brave new worlds here fringed by ghosts, “Empty Room” moves not to the sultry beat of the culture it hopes to describe, but to the ever-so-slow rotations of an onstage fan that stirs the air without engaging the soul.