If there’s a lesson to be learned from “Here,” the much-anticipated new play by Michael Frayn, it’s to beware of plays featuring lengthy debates about the word “inauthentic”– especially when one character applies the adjective to another’s use of the word “what.” And lest this moment sound too preposterously rarefied by half, be aware that “Here” virtually offers nothing but.
While Frayn on-form (as in “Noises Off” and especially “Benefactors”) is among England’s leading playwrights, the same dramatist off-form occupies a bewildering category all his own. On paper, “Here” might resemble a clever, if rather collegiate, Ionesco pastiche; but onstage — and despite two exceptionally sympathetic leads in Teresa Banham and Iain Glen — it’s a case study in archness run riot, guaranteed to drive to distraction unsuspecting audiences who arrive at the theater only to discover there’s no “Here” there.
Besides Ionesco, the play pays nominal homage to Pinter without any of the linguistic tension or rhythm that give his work its pulse. A young couple, Cath (Banham) and Phil (Glen), arrive in an empty room at the top of a house owned by a widow, Pat (Brenda Bruce). Should they rent it or not? Phil says yes, Cath says no. Soon she concedes and for the rest of the play — and over the two years it covers — the room is their world.
Indeed, barring a moment in which Phil picks up a copy of Private Eye magazine, the outside world never enters into “Here.” Cath and Phil pass the time repositioning the mattress, sparring over language, hiding from one another , and playing the “what if?” games with which Phil is obsessed.
As for Pat, whose arrival inevitably interrupts the couple’s most crucial encounters, she’s less a landlady than an emblem of nihilism, the voice of doom urging them to live in the moment now, since what lies ahead — Pat insists — is not to be envied.
Phil is such a bore that any real Cath would leave him after about five minutes. But Frayn cannot sustain his own absurdism: Phil’s second-act disappearance is illogical on this play’s own terms, as is his prior confession of misery.
Longtime Frayn director Michael Blakemore is no stranger to such assignments — remember Don DeLillo’s “The Day Room” at Manhattan Theater Club? — and he and his two gifted leads deftly salvage what they can. Banham is such a fresh, natural actress that one yearns to see her in a real part, not an authorial conceit; Glen’s abundant charm actually shows us what Cath might be sticking around for, since there’s nothing in the punningly named Phil (philosopher?) to offer a clue.
In the end, though, “Here” remains no less an experiment gone awry than Frayn’s previous, mock-Pirandello “Look Look.” And while it may not do much for the wan state of new British writing, those in the mood may find themselves rushing home after the play to rearrange the furniture.