If a playwright can’t justify his characters’ actions, how can he expect the same from an audience? That is one of the many questions prompted by “Blinded by the Sun,” the second play from Stephen Poliakoff this year. Another might be why this author continues to be his own worst enemy, with play after play leading a potentially compelling narrative down a blind alley of implausibility mixed with smugness. Though the Peter Shaffer-esque title implies an evening of dramatic heat, “Blinded by the Sun” leaves some first-rank actors struggling amid the bafflement, as if they like Poliakoff’s antihero, Al realized they were being conned.
The first act is barely under way before one notices an accumulation of remarks “for some reason,” “God knows why” that don’t exactly instill confidence. Al (Douglas Hodge), an amiably shambolic, sex-obsessed chemistry professor at a northern English university, is being promoted to head of department by his boss (a twinkly Graham Crowden), though why, since he has written a scant two papers in seven years and gives off a generally dilatory air , eludes observers on both sides of the footlights.
Al’s colleagues react to the news with bemusement but also calm. “This is Al; what can he do to us?” asks Christopher (Duncan Bell) in the sort of remark that , were Ron Daniels’ production less lofty, would be accompanied by cheesily portentous music to match. (Instead, we get some elegant classical strains and a cracked lintel in Tom Piper’s set implying that all will not end well.)
What Al can do, it turns out, is pretty rough indeed. First, he exposes as a fake Christopher’s celebrity-making “sun battery,” which, it was claimed triumphantly, creates hydrogen out of sunlight and water. Christopher, it seems, may have fudged the experiment with baking powder, though research assistant Barbara (Hermione Norris) turns out to be no more reliable a witness than Al is a narrator.
Later, Al prompts the dismissal of onetime mentor Elinor (Frances de la Tour) a woman as pure in her scientific quest as Al is schlocky due to his festering anger at her apparent willingness to cover up evidence of Christopher’s fraud. Lest Al seem too noble, Poliakoff makes clear that Al is the one gone rotten to the core. A self-confessed hack with a flair for hucksterism all his own, Al spends his time swilling champagne and flying the Concorde when not churning out popular science bestsellers that get remaindered in Japan. He’s “a detective patrolling the zeitgeist,” bloated on self-importance a man as rife with pronouncements as he is low on propriety.
If that were all, “Blinded by the Sun” would be merely unlikely, since the list of narrative non sequiturs is as long as the chains of plastic bags that Al parades intermittently before the audience like so many clues, or molecules. It’s hardly credible that Al would remain in this university post given the lure of a talkshow-circuit fast track that almost certainly would have landed him in the U.S. (In Poliakoff’s terms, America equals self-promotion and the marketplace, and you can be sure all three are evil.) What Christopher and Elinor are still doing speaking to Al at play’s end is anyone’s guess, since he — in different ways — has destroyed both their lives. Only Ghislane (Orla Brady), Christopher’s wife, reacts to Al in a way that seems at all recognizable.
While Poliakoff never delivers the expected showdown between Al and Christopher about the gadfly’s self-serving unveiling of the true researcher’s lie, he can’t resist a familiar tug toward the tendentious. (Amusement arcades and the electrical cabling of high-rise apartments here receive the scorn poured in his last play, “Sweet Panic,” on underground parking lots.) Leading the moralizing is Joanna (Indra Ove), Al’s girlfriend, a graduate student-turned-publicist “the hype industry,” scoffs Al on cue. Though she starts the play as a surrogate audience member wondering aloud at the ways of science, Joanna evolves into a scold determined not to become one of Al’s mementos. (Memento? She’s a blatant plot device.)
Elinor is the focus of much of the speechifying in her defense of the pursuit of mystery and creativity against Al’s blinkered pragmatism. Luckily, the part is given real weight by the exemplary de la Tour, who can turn the examination of a rug stain into an elegant requiem for a life lived “in parentheses.” Greedily spooning custard as she chats to longtime cafeteria employee Charlie (Walter Sparrow), the actress embodies an insight into the mystery of humankind quite apart from the enigma surrounding Elinor’s research. What stature the play has is largely hers.
As Al, Hodge manages to expand both in girth and self-regard as he continues his ascent at everyone else’s cost. The leveler of people’s dreams that he eventually becomes exists at a scary remove from the sandaled bohemian at the outset of whom, by the end, only the beard remains. It’s not this fine actor’s fault that the play often seems to be closing in confusedly around him, though how he seems to fill out during the performance is a matter only his dresser and dietitian know for sure.