You can tell a lot from a curtain call. Taking their bows at the end of “The Last of the Haussmanns,” the strong cast look exhausted but not in a good way. That’s because they’ve spent 2 3/4 hours adding energy to the initially flavorsome but overextended and largely dramatically inert family squabbles that constitute Stephen Beresford’s playwriting debut.
Beresford’s play is a case of Chekhov meets the generation gap. The former is consciously echoed via the central issue of the sale of the family home where everything takes place, as in “The Cherry Orchard.” Meanwhile, Matthew Marsh as Peter, a charming but weak man who flirts disastrously with both mother and daughter, is drawn from Trigorin in “The Seagull.”
The generation gap is a coinage derived from Sixties parent/child antagonism. But it’s the repercussions of that decade’s divisions that are this play’s concern, via the vexed relationship between idealistic, Sixties hippie mother Judy (Julie Walters) and her grown-up but still resentful children Libby (Helen McCrory) and Nick (Rory Kinnear).
Oddly, the scenario, time-scale and look-back-in-rancor arguments between a defiant mother and angry children are virtually identical to Alexi Kaye Cambell’s piercing 2009 drama “Apologia.” But where that vastly more effective play held audiences rapt via unspoken tension, vivid dramatic pacing and structural control, “The Last of the Haussmanns” rambles, keeping its audience only intermittently engaged.
Nick, a gay smack addict in remission, has been dragged back to the hopelessly idiosyncratic family home by his exasperated sister Libby. She, in turn, is repeating history by having tussles with her 15-year-old daughter (Isabella Laughland). Nick’s unwilling presence after so long from the family allows everyone to indulge in lengthy exposition about their difficulties with spirited but cantankerous Judy, who has just had surgery for a melanoma.
Drolly amusing though this overly talky opening is, the writing rarely deepens. As a former actor, Beresford creates characters teeming with detail but he’s over-reliant on dialogue. Too much is talked about while far too little happens. Chekhov’s characters are equally in stasis but he develops forward momentum beneath the surface. Here, characters come and go, but there’s little suspense or resolution.
Walters plays Judy with gusto and a tremendous display of emotions. But you find yourself admiring her effort rather than being allowed to empathize. Kinnear provides a study in wayward fecklessness but even he cannot make his character’s overstated but underdeveloped sexuality convincing.
McCrory has the hardest role. since most of the action pivots around her (in)ability to cope. She goes for broke but the script offers too little subtext to experience true empathy. The one exception is when Libby lets down her guard and kisses someone inappropriately. The highlight of the evening, this beautifully sustained moment is filled with silent tension. Its presence, however, illustrates how missing it is throughout the rest of the proceedings.
Despite Vicki Mortimer’s authentic, wholly convincing set of the ramshackle family pile bedecked with souvenirs of Judy’s hippie life, Howard Davies’ heavy-handed production is, uncharacteristically, tonally off. Almost all the costumes suggest the children are emulating their mother’s outlandish taste even as they loudly reject it. And Mark Henderson’s lighting feels slipshod, casting shadows from backstage across the set, thereby warning the audiences of an impending arrival.
Not for the first time, the play raises questions about the National Theater’s dramaturgy department. Was there no one who could lead Beresford’s examination of the legacy of parents through further drafts to bring true dramatic action to so potentially potent a situation?