William (Alan Howard), the beleaguered editor of the London journal Footnotes in History, looks bewildered at the start of “The Editing Process,” and for a considerable amount of Meredith Oakes’ new play, the audience is likely to share his dismay. Stick with it, though, and the play — and Stephen Daldry’s utterly arresting production of it — begins to take hold, much like a blurred picture coming into hard, sharp focus.
A music critic for the Independent newspaper, Oakes made an auspicious play-writing debut last year with “The Neighbor,” about two rancorous young men on a London council estate. There’s rancor to spare here, too, but the heightened realism of the first play has yielded to the surreal. It’s the kind of play in which a character crosses herself before saying “hyacinths,” and where a tin of smoked oysters proves a major catalyst in the plot.
Yet as otherworldly as it seems, its concerns are very much of this world; the play is a darkly comic lament for lives, and a system of values, nowadays doomed to be mere footnotes.
Oakes’ targets won’t surprise anyone on either side of the Atlantic: corporate image consultants like Tamara del Fuego (Annabelle Apsion), who value presentation over actual product; and conglomerate bullies — in this case, Nicholas Woodeson’s ponytailed gay Lionel — who use power to wreak sexual and political havoc. Besides William, the play’s victims include his long-standing secretary, Peggy (Prunella Scales), and, after a fashion, the determined freelancer Miles (Julian Rhind-Tutt), whose monograph on the life of the poet Fitch brings the play bruisingly full circle.
The new generation of Footnotes staff are a disparate pair: the all too sexually available Ted (Tom Hollander) and the dubiously well-connected Eleanor (Caroline Harker), who tells William at the outset that, yes, she has been in publishing long — six months.
After a while the plot becomes less important than Oakes’ quirky riffs on it, all of them beautifully complemented by Daldry’s responsive staging, his first since winning a Tony for “An Inspector Calls.”
Abetted by sound designer Paul Arditti and composer Stephen Warbeck, the director creates a spooky aural environment in keeping with the characters’ discursive soliloquies on topics as diverse as childhood, death and the reactions of skin to air conditioning. And when William and Peggy pair off at the end to trade notes on having been fired, Daldry exposes two lives “dwindled away” into meaninglessness and long ago given over to spiritual redundancy.
Not all the play matches the final scene, with its chillingly insane giggle from a brilliant Scales; and the sexual hijinx involving Hollander’s spirited Ted are crudely, not candidly, written. Footnotes in History, too, remains a soft satiric target of far less interest than its always eccentric employees.
And yet, random though the eccentricities appear — Howard’s singsong William , a cousin of sorts to the same actor’s wayward inventor earlier this year in “Les Parents Terribles,” at one point impersonates a dying fish — Oakes’ nihilism is felt down to an act one curtain line in which a seemingly innocuous chat about chocolate ends by embracing “the dark.” To that extent, the play has a provocative metaphor in Ian MacNeil’s revolving Plexiglas set, whose opaque panels give way as the play gets more blackly lucid in order to let in more and more light.