In Anna Mackmin’s immensely poised production, Charlotte Jones’ “The Lightning Play” achieves an immaculate ending. The back wall of the chic white sitting room splits apart, the ceiling flies out, lightning flashes, thunder roars and rain pours down with the forlorn central character and his oldest friend sheltering beneath a giant yew tree. It’s a genuine theatrical coup but not a true climax, because despite its visual power, dramatically it feels added on. It’s symptomatic of an evening whose pleasures chiefly derive from the smartness of the playing rather than the play.
Affluent Max (Matthew Marsh) and Harriet (Eleanor David) have an outwardly successful marriage that’s actually fracturing beneath the pressure of its longevity. He’s a celebrity ghostwriter — and with the events set on Halloween, you can be sure his job’s punning potential isn’t accidental — while Harriet, “a talented shopper,” is ceaselessly devoted to beautifying her home.
The play centers around an impromptu drinks party whose guest list and comically fraught tone stem from events that occur during the day we see in flashback scenes. Max has run into plucky, heavily pregnant Imogen (Katherine Parkinson). She used to be the best friend of his absent, 25-year-old daughter Anna, who, like Rachel Corrie, is living in war zones doing peace work.
Imogen invites herself and husband Marcus (Orlando Seale) over for the evening, which is further swelled by Max’s feckless but kind oldest friend, Eddie (Lloyd Hutchinson), an a ex-monk. This is the day when Eddie has met gauche Jacklyn (Adie Allen), a woolly-hatted rambler training to be a Reiki master, so he invites her along, too.
Character introductions are interleaved not only with amusingly written dialogue scenes of Max’s and Harriet’s sharp-tongued accusations, but by varying degrees of marital temptation. Max, we learn, has flirted disastrously with a glamour model — “Her breasts arrived separately, of course. They had their own chauffeur” — who was to have been the subject of his next book. Unhappy Harriet, meanwhile, has spent the day trying to buy a rug and bedding the rug shop’s handsome owner.
With the cast finally installed, Jones reveals and unravels increasingly complicated relationships between them. But with the hosts dangerously drunk and unhappy, everything feels like a slighter rewrite of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” right down to the “Get the Guests” sequence, the pregnant young wife and another secret child plot.
That final, crucial element is particularly potent for Max. Using four remote controls in an infuriatingly unsuccessful attempt to operate his newly installed, state-of-the-art plasma TV, he alone has been seeing haunting images onscreen. In bursts of static interference, scenes from his daughter’s sun-dappled country childhood keep flashing up.
Jones’ largely satirical tone marks the play out as a more balanced and upmarket “Abigail’s Party.” She drives the characters toward both caustic and comic intimate revelation. Imogen’s verdict on her handsome but po-faced husband — “I find it so hard to look at him when he comes” — is ghastly and alarmingly funny, but moments as theatrically strong as that are surrounded by dialogue better suited to TV, which doesn’t have to carry theatrical freight.
What lifts the evening is Mackmin’s beautifully finessed cast. Lez Brotherston’s set, all green-glass tables, Buddhas and Barcelona chairs, is a marvelously chilly backdrop for David’s Harriet, whose enervated bitchiness is exquisitely offset by her vulnerability. Marsh, too, shows sadness beneath a wittily sarcastic exterior.
Allen’s marvelously bold Jacklyn has a manic laugh, a gleam in her eye and sudden lines like, “I’ve flirted with neo-paganism” that should tip over into caricature. However, she winningly goes for comic extremes while supplying real pathos.
She’s matched by Parkinson’s equally persuasive Imogen. Playing a woman patronized by the other characters (and almost by the play), she pushes the role to the edge, her voice just shy of annoying, her niceness souring brilliantly into bullying.
Keeping the six party characters alive onstage together is a tall order. Despite some zinging one-liners and well-characterized dialogue, it’s a feat even these actors can’t quite pull off.
One of the characters asserts the truth lies in what is unsaid. Ironically, “The Lightning Play” never totally seduces because Jones doesn’t fully enliven the moments when her characters need to thrive — when they are not speaking.