Daniel (Geoffrey Streatfeild) is tormented by the possibility that Reg, his late partner, may not have been truthful: “I think he was having an affair.” That’s not the half of it. As stealthily revealed in the late Kevin Elyot’s engrossingly plotted 1994 tragicomedy “My Night With Reg,” Reg wreaks havoc in the interlocked lives of six friends. Yet what is really made flesh in this Donmar Warehouse revival is Elyot’s rare ability to express hidden pain through laugh-aloud comedy. As the characters yearn for the truth, Robert Hastie’s superbly acted revival — with a cast that includes Julian Ovenden of “Downton Abbey” — makes an unanswerable case for this being the best play about lying.
Set across three evenings spanning four years, the action begins with a reunion of college friends at the flat-warming of permanently single neatnik Guy (warmly self-deprecating Jonathan Broadbent). Timing is literally and metaphorically everything in this play, and Guy is nervous because he’s running late, cute but slow decorator Eric (beautifully underplayed Lewis Reeves) is still up a ladder putting finishing touches to the paintwork and John (Julian Ovenden) is early. At least, those appear to be the reasons but, as we gradually discover, Guy is actually on edge for a much stronger reason.
The two men haven’t seen one another in over nine years, and during all that time Guy has been helplessly but secretly in love with him. Stunned by John’s sudden and unexpected “You’re the only one,” Guy’s hopes rocket, only to come crashing down as John confides that Guy is the only one he can talk to, thus beginning a comic cycle in which Guy becomes the unwilling repository of everyone’s secrets. Unable to confess his love for fear of rejection, Guy is trapped in the past, but the play shifts inexorably forward in two successive scenes in which the past keeps returning to haunt everyone’s present and future.
As more and more people entrust kind but increasingly exasperated Guy with their desires and deceits, the funny and increasingly painful coincidences never come at the expense of dramatic truth. In a manner which is nothing less than Chekhovian, the actors simultaneously raise laughs of surprise as they deliver stabs of exquisitely rendered pain.
In his Donmar debut, Hastie’s understated directorial assurance is everywhere apparent. He encourages the actors to allow the heartbreaking subtext to surface for the audience without ever breaking the elegant surface of Elyot’s wit. It’s an exciting balancing act that straddles piercing unhappiness, acute character assassinations and outrageous stories of near-ludicrous lustful adventures.
This is a comedy written and set in the AIDS era, which was stalked by death, and the ripple-effect of carefully structured character shocks for the cast of gay men keeps the audience rapt. But the true testament of the power of both writing and production is the quality of attention it engenders. For a comedy of manners, the play is extraordinarily suspenseful, and the silence between laughs is broken only by audible gasps as people clock the unspoken connections that Elyot has so cunningly set up. The climax, with a long-brewed moment of whether or not to tell the truth, is properly morally complicated and agonizing in its emotional depth.
Writing of this suggestive quality is wholly dependent on the strength of the performances. Easeful Ovenden is beautifully cast as one of those rich, carelessly attractive types for whom everything comes too easily. So much so, that when he discovers that he has actually fallen inappropriately in love, the effect is devastating. Streatfeild brings so much galloping zest to Daniel’s sense of camp that his hollowing-out through loss and doubt is doubly affecting. Matt Bardock’s blunt bus-driver makes as much comic mileage out of enraged silence as from his foul-mouthed fury, the object of which are the ministrations of his partner Bernie, a man who could bore for Britain, played with breathtaking dignity by Richard Cant.
On its first appearance, “My Night With Reg” was often lazily described as a “gay play” or, worse, an “AIDS play,” which is like labeling “Julius Caesar” as a play about Rome. Its characters may indeed be gay but its richly theatrical themes — longing, denial and lying — are universal. In 1994 it transferred to the West End for a long run and swept awards ceremonies. This beautifully designed, perfectly balanced revival deserves to repeat that success.