The Positive Hour

It's been a long time since sorority was examined as earnestly on a London stage as it is in "The Positive Hour," the second collaboration (following the 1992 "Hush" at the Royal Court) between playwright April de Angelis and director Max Stafford-Clark. A how-did-we-get-there-from-here drama about women at various flash points, the play may strike Americans as slightly old hat even as the English find it revelatory. At heart, it's this country's very own "Heidi Chronicles," complete with lines --- "Are you where you expected to be?" --- that might have been culled from the Wendy Wasserstein play. If "The Positive Hour" never lands its audience anywhere unexpected, there's no denying its good intentions; in a play about second chances, de Angelis deserves that many more, and then some.

With:
Cast: Margot Leicester (Miranda), Patti Love (Emma), Kate Ashfield (Nicola), David Sibley (The Man), Kitty Stafford-Clark (Victoria), Julia Lane (Paula), Robin Soans (Roger).

Working with a set designer, Julian McGowan, whose startling use of projections allows her to roam London freely, the author is lucky, too, to have a supporter in Stafford-Clark (most recently represented in New York with “The Steward of Christendom”), whose keen eye for nuance is everywhere apparent. Imagine, for instance, the sub-Ayckbourn parody that might have been made out of the heartsick 46-year-old Emma’s (Patti Love) dalliance with a black-gloved, hooded man (David Sibley) who’s into S&M and rubber. While their scenes could devolve into tabloid exposes of English fetishism, Stafford-Clark keeps them light and oddly touching (and beautifully acted by both participants).

Emma is one of three women who make up “the group” presided over by Miranda (Margot Leicester), a social worker on the mend from a breakdown who is married to the philandering Roger (Robin Soans). (Leicester’s warmth in the role goes some way toward softening the thud of lines like “Lost people hate us because they need us.”) Though the reason for her collapse is schematically revealed at the 11th hour, there is nothing schematic about the women in her care. Beyond Emma, they include Paula (Julia Lane), a tattooed tough-talker who did prison time for stealing a video, and Nicola (a beaming Kate Ashfield), whose father fixation prompts one of the play’s several quotations from T.S. Eliot. (The title is another.)

Re-enacting various traumas, the women are eager to jumpstart their lives. Paula hopes to regain access to her nearly 9-year-old daughter, Victoria (played by Kitty Stafford-Clark, the director’s daughter, looking as if she is suppressing a case of the giggles). It’s unfortunate that, as written, Victoria is so precocious that one would imagine any real-life Paula giving her a wide berth. And though Paula’s own abusive domestic life weakens her claims on the child, de Angelis regards all her characters as deserving of better than they have. As Miranda says, in one of the quiet epiphanies to which this author is prone, “I’m not going to start thinking small. I’m going to start thinking bigger than ever.”

That attitude in itself separates this writer from those contemporaries (Mark Ravenhill of “Shopping and Fucking,” for example, Stafford-Clark’s last venture) whose characters tumble into ever bleaker pits of despair. It’s true that de Angelis’ final scene is muddied by her apparent desire to go every emotional direction at once, but there’s something to be said for the lack of irony in the play’s title. Talk about accentuating the positive: This is the first new play in months to allow even the slightest room for hope.

The Positive Hour

London

Production: An Out of Joint and Hampstead Theater co-presentation of a play in two acts by April de Angelis. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark. Sets and costumes, Julian McGowan

Creative: Lighting, Johanna Town; sound, Scott Myers; assistant director, Shabnam Shabazi. Opened, reviewed March 4, 1997, at the Hampstead Theater; 174 seats; £13.50 ($22) top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast: Cast: Margot Leicester (Miranda), Patti Love (Emma), Kate Ashfield (Nicola), David Sibley (The Man), Kitty Stafford-Clark (Victoria), Julia Lane (Paula), Robin Soans (Roger).

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