Not so long ago, a traditionally structured postwar British drama like Terence Rattigan’s “The Deep Blue Sea” would have been dismissed by a spectacle-besotted Broadway as a dull three-act relic from the West End of another era. But Rattigan’s cultured explorations of the moral dilemmas of the British middle classes now play in New York as eloquent, even prescient portraits of the dangers of sexual and social repression.
At a time when directors often deconstruct such period scripts with sharper and flashier knives, this thoughtful, quiet production is perhaps insufficiently radical to attract the kind of attention that would support a transfer to a larger Broadway house — in so many respects, one wishes it had gone further down the revisionist road. But in the hands of a talented director like Mark Lamos, “The Deep Blue Sea” still makes for a highly provocative and thoroughly entertaining evening of theater.
In the tricky lead role of Hester Collyer, a clergyman’s daughter approaching middle age but in her sexual prime, Blythe Danner has to avoid any number of traps. Beginning with her failed attempt at suicide, the action in this well-made play revolves almost entirely around Collyer’s psychosexual dilemmas. She’s already left her loving but dull jurist husband (deftly played by Edward Herrmann) in favor of shacking up with a young and good-looking but morally questionable ex-airman named Freddie Page (David Conrad).
At the play’s point of attack, the booze-addled Page has lost interest in Hester’s physical and emotional needs, rendering her an outcast in more ways than one. Only the socially disgraced doctor who lives downstairs (played here with broad relish by Olek Krupa) has some understanding of her problems. Why? He’s not British.
The dilemma for Danner is to make Hester’s frustrations physically clear, even though Rattigan’s elliptical period text makes only oblique references to her sexual desires. Given those constraints, Danner walks the fine line between classical dignity and damaged goods with real skill — her work is elegant yet rough, dignified yet vulnerable.
Lamos is clearly most interested here in the way the Brits of the time (or of any time, for that matter) did themselves in by eschewing desire and honest compassion for social convention. That concept is most clearly expressed in some of the smaller roles. As two neighbors unable to deal with such a bothersome and murky mess as a suicide, the excellent Ben Shenkman and Vivienne Benesch are like a pair of stiff deer caught in the headlights of emotional reality.
Danner’s best scenes are with her character’s former husband, a man who genuinely loves his ex-wife but whose value system makes him unable to understand her needs or make the changes she desires. Herrmann is excellent in his role.
The production’s weakest link is Conrad’s performance as Hester’s lover. Superficial and disconnected from his character’s troubles, Conrad does not bring the necessary complexity to the part.
Regardless of any director’s concept, the script still creaks in places. Characters leave the single-room setting for no reason other than to make it possible for two other people to talk alone. And the whole affair echoes the neatness of the social style of behavior the script is presumably attacking.
But these kinds of contrivances actually come off as charming here — and one can certainly see in this script the seeds of the revolution that was to overthrow British drama just a few years down the road.
In many ways, “Deep Blue Sea” has a complicated appeal. There’s a sense of security watching a play that holds its audience firmly by the hand for its three brief acts, while at the same time the production undermines the very genre of the work. The elegance of an old-fashioned evening is coupled with the incisive honesty of a modern approach. All in all, it’s a pleasant and surprisingly revelatory 1990s cocktail.