Surrounded by friends and relations in an East European shtetl circa 1900, wannabe helmer Motl Mendel (Damien Molony) is being terrorized by timber merchant and tyro moving picture producer Jacob Bindel (Antony Sher). Advancing furiously on Motl, Jacob brandishes a chair … and suddenly stops. It turns out that Jacob is showing him the key to an acting scene is to create emotion out of surprise. Sadly, surprise is entirely absent from Nicholas Wright’s disappointing new play “Travelling Light.”
An overly nostalgic, fictional bio-drama of someone not unlike Sam Goldwyn (ne Shmuel Gelbfisz), Wright’s play is structured via the honeyed memories of one Maurice Montgomery (Paul Jesson). Expensively suited, this 1930s movie mogul addresses the audience to take us back to his days as a young Jewish man who fell in love with his late father’s moving picture camera.
Unfortunately, Maurice’s narrative presence robs the play of tension. Scenes of his younger self’s experiments with the medium are accompanied by projections of his earliest efforts (courtesy of filmmaker/projection designer Jon Driscoll). But since we know he ends up a Hollywood success (with a suitably Americanized name), the scenes are dogged by predictablility.
That problem also sours the construction of the characters. In order to lighten the load, director Nicholas Hytner steers the dialogue toward comedy. Encouraging his game cast toward recognizable characters wins easy laughs of recognition, but depth is lacking. The worst offender is Sher in a performance of worryingly epic proportions.
Relationships either between Motl and his newfound medium or with those around him lack trenchant detail. Wright, usually a precise writer, here winds up mostly with stereotypes. No matter how genially they are played, you know exactly what’s going to come out of the mouths of, say, the complaining accountant brother or the kvetching women.
The exception is Motl’s friend Anna (Lauren O’Neil) who hits upon the novel idea of editing. She’s the only non-Jew, and in this context that makes her feelings and reactions less easy to predict which, in turn, makes her easily the play’s most interesting character. But even her relationships with Motl and Jacob remain underwritten.
Nor can Wright resist the opportunity to enlarge upon his knowing tone. Faced with the meddling of his producer and the fierce constraints of his accountant, Motl swears he’ll go to Hollywood because it won’t be like that there. Amusing though the observation is on its first outing, there are diminishing returns on Wright’s repeated parallels.
The writing is ultimately too schematic to bear the weight of the play’s sentimental conclusion, which feels unearned. At one point, Motl hits on the idea of switching from documentary to drama. It’s a leap the play fails to make.