A weekend in the country has yielded dramatic dividends for everything from “A Little Night Music” and “The Norman Conquests” to “The Mousetrap.” But if “The Priory” secondhandedly yokes those plays’ unexpected guests, emotional misalliances and even a whiff of country-house horror, playwright Michael Wynne renders them into a neat tragicomedy that is almost a guilty pleasure.
With the spirit of success and the specter of failure hanging over the New Year’s Eve celebrations of a group of media-type old friends teetering on the edges of early mid-life crises, the effect is like watching a stage version of “thirtysomething,” albeit with bigger laughs.
But if the conceit is unoriginal, its familiarity works to the comedy’s advantage. Fairly hopeless Kate (Jessica Hynes), who has organized the gathering at a renovated priory in the middle of nowhere, observes to architect Daniel (pin-sharp Joseph Millson) that this isn’t going to be a big drunken party: “A few friends. People we like. No craziness.” But her statement clearly is so far off the mark, it sets up an amused ripple of anticipation.
True to satisfying form, things begin to go comically wrong almost immediately with the arrival of Ben (Alastair Mackenzie), a globe-trotting travel writer who appears with — cue snobbery — beautician Laura (Charlotte Riley). The couple has just become engaged — after only one night. Cracks widen further when formerly successful actor Carl (Rupert Penry-Jones) also turns up with an unexpected plus one: his legendarily ghastly wife, Rebecca.
Played with relish by Rachael Stirling, who has a masters in withering disdain, Rebecca is a self-absorbed children’s TV producer. Despite parading the lives of her offspring to childless Kate, she evinces the maternal warmth of a freezer. Putting such a monster into the mix allows Wynne to up the stakes and the bitching as the rest of the group try (and fail) to put up with her.
Gradually every one of them is revealed to be nursing discontent beneath a facade. Throughout the first half, the gap between what they say and what the audience observes of their behavior grows increasingly funny.
For all their exclamations of delight at being away from it all, they are secretly dependent on contemporary life choices, whether it’s Ben’s beloved iPhone or Dan’s stymied ongoing Internet chat with a much younger man.
Even soon-to-be-published novelist Kate, who appears to eschew the blandishments of modern life, turns out to have been lying on several fronts. As the drinks are downed — not to mention Carl’s cocaine stash — the backbiting builds up.
Director Jeremy Herrin’s expertly controlled production is alive to the fact that Wynne is juggling a would-be caustic commentary with something more compassionate. Herrin not only times the comedy with notable precision, he gives the moments of second-act pain their full due without tipping over into indulgence.
Hynes weakens the central emotional entanglement of Kate and Carl by overloading her character with overplayed neuroses and scene-slowing physical tics. But the rest of the cast completely convince as a group whose friendships have frayed, possibly beyond repair.
Unlike his characters, Wynne is nothing if not self-aware — as indicated by jokes about “The Big Chill.” But if the faintly creaky “The Priory” lacks the ambition to define an era as successfully as that movie, its skewering of a generation’s pretensions and delusions displays a generosity that’s unfashionably kind.