Reviewers divided on new Bennett play

Stateside legiters are keeping a close eye on the latest play by Alan Bennett, “The Habit of Art.” The show, which opened earlier this week at London’s National Theater, is Bennett’s follow-up to “The History Boys,” the hit that not only raked in £5 million ($8.3 million) for the National but went on to a Tony-winning Broadway run.

Upping the anticipation factor on both sides of the Atlantic is the fact that “Habit of Art” also reunites “History Boys” stars Richard Griffiths — who stepped into the lead role after Michael Gambon bowed out due to health issues — and Frances de la Tour, along with director (and National a.d.) Nicholas Hytner. The play is next in line for NT Live, the National’s series of HD cinema broadcasts.

Story centers on a play-within-a-play about a fictional 1972 meeting between poet W.H. Auden (Griffiths) and composer Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings). Auds follow that story through the framing device of a group of thesps rehearsing the drama at the National Theater (overseen by a stage manager played by de la Tour).

Brit reviewers all praised the acting and the clarity of the production, but were more divided on the play itself. Still, the show earned enough raves to keep “Habit” on the Gotham radar.

Here’s what the London critics said:

Variety’s David Benedict logged one of the cooler responses, noting “Bennett is mostly stronger on set-pieces than sustained drama” and “the taut atmosphere at crunch points reveals how slackly meandering things are elsewhere.” Finding the play less accessible than “History Boys,” he wrote, “The most frustrating element of ‘Habit’ is that beneath all its playfulness, there’s a shorter, tighter, tougher play struggling to get out.”

Charles Spencer of the Telegraph was among critics giving the show five stars, calling the play “an absolute cracker, often wonderfully and sometimes filthily funny (this is not a show for the prudish), but also deeply and unexpectedly moving.” Praising the cast and Hytner’s staging, he proclaims: “I can think of few plays that combine wild laughter, deep emotion and technical ingenuity with such bravura. ‘The Habit of Art’ is a smash hit if I ever saw one.”

Paul Taylor of the Independent also gave “Habit” — a “hotly anticipated and hilariously provocative new play” — five stars. Hytner, he wrote, “directs with an unerring instinct for the volatile nature of the material in a cracking production that flirtatiously keeps the audience up to speed with the outrageous amount of information and allusion.”

Writing in the Guardian, Michael Billington gave “Habit” four stars, saying that “while it may not possess the universal resonance of ‘The History Boys,’ the play has the characteristic Bennett mix of wit and wistfulness.” There’s plenty of humor and emotion in it, he said, but sometimes it’s hard to make out underneath the meta-theatrical structure: “At times, there is so much scaffolding you can’t always see the main property.”

Among those awarding “Habit” three stars, Henry Hitchings of the Evening Standard called the play “cerebral and self-referential.” “It’s funny, and sometimes brilliantly so, but strangely uninvolving,” he wrote. “Although Bennett savors his material, he doesn’t make it sing.”

Benedict Nightingale of the Times, in another three-star review, called the show “thematically a muddle,” writing that Bennett’s elaborate play-within-a-play conceit seemingly indicates the scribe “doesn’t fully trust his material.” Still, there are pleasures to be had: “Better a multi-course Bennett banquet than almost anyone else’s neat meal, especially when the lead actors are so strong.”

In the Daily Mail, one of the Brit papers that eschews the star rating system, Quentin Letts was largely unimpressed, calling the play “satirical, serious and self-indulgent, sometimes all at the same time.”

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