Meanwhile, back in the consulting room… For the second time this year, the Almeida Theater is reviving a play focused around psychoanalysis. Nicholas Wright’s 1988 three-hander drama, “Mrs. Klein,” is subtler, stronger and better written than its season stablemate, “Duet for One,” but in Thea Sharrock’s considered production, the play’s emotions are displayed rather than driven. And the result feels more rehearsed than directed.
Like “Mommie Dearest” minus the stacked-up melodrama, the play is primarily a bitter confrontation between a mother, Melanie Klein (Clare Higgins), and her resentful daughter Melitta (Zoe Waites). Everything pivots around the recent death of Melanie’s son Hans. Across one night of exposures and denial, key questions are thrashed out of conflicting responsibilities in private and professional relationships.
Despite the fact that psychoanalysis was once dubbed “the talking cure,” the strength of Wright’s writing lies in the power of his understatement. That’s interestingly ironic given that “Mrs. Klein” is a talky play with almost no events or direct action.
Instead, as befits a study of a psychoanalyst and the daughter who followed her into, as it were, the family business, Wright peels back layers of conversation to reveal motives and long-buried resentments. But by allowing her actors to signal that things are hidden, Sharrock’s direction doesn’t always serve the play well. The same is true of Tim Hatley’s set, a typical Hampstead home bedecked with books — but painted a womb-like dark fuchsia pink.
Beautifully composed in carefully cut clothes, Higgins looks for all the world like the comfortable clinician she has become since fleeing Germany. She makes Melanie beady, clipped, precise; a woman who listens but rarely hears. And while enjoying the way her character expounds upon her openness, she always indicates not just her ruthlessness, but her lack of understanding of the ramifications of her work upon her children.
That degree of display is matched by Waites, taking over from Kate Ashfield, originally cast in the role. Sweeping into the room and loftily taking charge, Waites plays up the grand manner with gusto. The subtext — this is a defense mechanism against her mother — is there in plain sight. But it gives away too much too soon, robbing the relationship of development.
By contrast, Nicola Walker’s watchful Paula is a captivating study in ambiguity. As Melanie’s new protege, Walker does nothing obvious to illustrate her feelings. Armed with a flawless German accent, she shows nervousness not by quaking, but by her tired composure. It’s the immediacy of her smile and her polite willingness to fit in with Melanie’s high-handedness that only gradually reveals her private motives.
As accusations pile up and defenses are torn down, the script separates show and tell. But by underlining feelings so strongly, Sharrock’s actors do a little too much of both, so Wright’s carefully constructed emotional fall-out doesn’t quite land. Thus even when Higgins finally breaks down in floods of unspeaking tears, there’s a nagging sense of admiring her bravery and technique, but not feeling her trauma.
It was Moss Hart who first put psychoanalysis centerstage, in a musical of all places, in “Lady in the Dark.” Since then, the thriller-like potential of psychoanalytic disclosure has powered plays up to and including “Equus,” which Sharrock recently revived on both sides of the Atlantic. The original production of Wright’s altogether superior drama had a celebrated Off Broadway run with Uta Hagen in the title role. Sharrock’s revival is unlikely to repeat that success.