A Greek holiday home becomes a symbol of a diplomatic powerplay in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s two-act time-hop, “Sunset at the Villa Thalia,” at the National Theater. The playwright of transatlantic success “The Pride” puts two couples — one British, one American — on the island of Skiathos as Greece trips into a military coup, and lets them exploit local uncertainty for personal gain. Despite a magnetic performance from Ben Miles of “Wolf Hall” (co-starring here with Elizabeth McGovern of “Downton Abbey”), it’s too transparent an allegory, and the political insights — meddling Americans, lapdog Brits — are as slimline as they are standard-issue.
Kaye Campbell was one year old when the tanks rolled into Athens, and his family had a house on Skiathos. It’s there that, in April 1967, Brits Theo (Sam Crane) and Charlotte (Pippa Nixon), playwright and actress, are lolling about at their lowly holiday rental when in storm the Americans — “diplomat” Harvey (Miles), a string-pulling CIA man, and his Barbie blonde partner June (McGovern) — on a full-beam charm offensive.
America personified, Harvey’s a whirlwind with whitened-teeth, perma-tanned, super-smooth and superficially charismatic. A natural born salesman who spouts synonyms to see what sticks, he convinces the Brits to buy the place on the cheap from its Greek owners. Desperate people sell easy and, despite Charlotte’s pangs of conscience, he wows both Greek owners and British buyers with promises of easy money and future happiness. Miles moves his hands like a stage hypnotist, then smacks a name on the clay shack — Villa Thalia — like a flag in the moon.
Nine years later, after the junta’s collapse, the four reunite on a fractious family holiday. Harvey and June, their childlessness a mark of a damn-tomorrow approach, have lost their sheen. June attacks the punch, and Harvey is breathless and disheveled, haunted by his hand in the botched Chilean coup. By the time they’re all dancing to rebetiko music, goofing around to traditional folk songs, Kaye Campbell’s metaphor has gone into overdrive and the ominous orange glow of Natasha Chivers’ Aegean sunset rather forces the mood.
All the way through, symbolism leads and characters follow. Kaye Campbell’s found a good vehicle for his politics, and he writes with a strong sense of friendship and family dynamics, but there’s very little drama on a personal level. A flicker of illicit attraction between Harvey and Charlotte comes to nothing, but that aside, it’s just a heap of liberal guilt: “good” people fretting over the consequences of their opportunistic actions abroad.
If Simon Godwin’s production remains watchable enough, it’s energized by strong performances. Crane ekes out Theo’s ineffectual and unimposing side, while as Charlotte, Nixon lets politeness and pragmatism impede on her judgment. Miles is superb as the jaded showman Harvey, his glinting smile concealing a snarl, and McGovern adds a dry humor as his neglected other half. But there’s never any doubt that we’re watching nations, not people, and in nailing America, Kaye Campbell heaps too much blame on one man. You’d think Harvey was working solo, a one-man foreign policy disaster, with the abuse Charlotte gives her guest. It’s simplistic and schematic, and ultimately, forgettable as a holiday fling.