That dramatic staple — the adultery play — takes a teasing turn in “Disposing of the Body,” the Hugh Whitemore drama that fully lives up to the considerable promise of its title. The play’s name suggests unmentionable skullduggery, but Whitemore, in what is easily his most satisfying work since “Breaking the Code” over a decade ago, is interested in intrigue of the moral and not the physical sort. (The squeamish, fear not: this is no “Fargo.”) The result is that rare evening where you end up resenting intermission; by that point you’re unlikely to want anything to stand in the way of an ever more prismatically fascinating tale.
The pleasures of a good plot have often been bypassed in recent years by dramatists who would doubtless regard structural finesse as hopelessly bourgeois. “Disposing of the Body,” by contrast, possesses the sheer drive associated with the sort of rural misdeeds that might have sent a delighted shiver through Miss Marple, coupled with larger concerns that only near the end get a shade too lofty for their own good. The result is a play about a disappearance that eventually disregards an expectedly neat conclusion in favor of a resting point valuing further questions over tidily arrived-at answers.
It’s not just the references to Simon Gray and Cheltenham’s Taj Mahal Tandoori that make this play as definably English as any of the studies in biography (from “Code” to “The Best of Friends” and “A Letter of Resignation”) that have occupied Whitemore in the past. Though fictional, Henry Preece (Stephen Moore) is so rooted in real life that there’s hardly a London audience member who won’t feel as if he is someone they know made flesh. At the start, he’s all wryly self-dramatizing male menopause, newly relocated with wife Angela (Charlotte Cornwell) from London to the country following his enforced retirement.
The Preeces like their leafy environs even as they accept friendly overtures from neighbors Alexander Barley (David Horovitch), a local French teacher, and wife Joanna (Gemma Jones). While the Preeces’ son Ben (Ben Porter) leads an expatriate life in Los Angeles of which his parents know very little, Henry and Angela embark on a rural round robin of dinner parties. (Or are they supper parties? The difference between the two prompts one of the play’s many comically telling debates.) And with the meals comes, for Henry, a second apparent necessity of British middle age and middle class — an affair (cf. Harold Pinter, Alan Ayckbourn and, indeed, Gray).
A more conventional play would pit Henry’s burgeoning passion for neighboring Joanna — whom he hires as his secretary — against wearying domestic clashes: the posters in the Hampstead Theater lobby feature countless reminders of that very genre. But at the end of the first act, Angela takes a shopping trip to London from which she never returns.
Far from allowing a once-illicit romance to blossom, his wife’s sudden absence sends Henry into an irreversible downward spiral, amid which even his seemingly innocuous purchase of a flame gun for the garden begins to cast a chill.
Did Henry murder his wife? Nothing can be revealed here, beyond Whitemore’s primary interest not in bodily disposal but in the gradual disintegration of Henry’s own psyche. Indeed, to that extent the Whitemore play that “Disposing of the Body” most resembles is his onetime Judi Dench vehicle, “Pack of Lies,” another piece about neighborly affection that ultimately gives way — for entirely different reasons — to a dislocating unease accompanied by betrayal and fear.
The narrative pull of the play is so strong that it seems guaranteed to travel, though any future production will be hard-pressed to match director Robin Lefevre’s top-rank ensemble here. (The only misstep: Tom Piper’s hyper-chic set, which is as sterile as his clothes for both leading women are quietly seductive.) So exact is the casting that even the smallish role of Henry’s unmarried sister, Kate, is played by Joanna McCallum with the easy assurance of someone ready to dismiss as “a brief moral lapse” what turns out to be a ruinous malaise. As the cop on the case, Ken Drury puts the drollest of spins on a potentially stock character here given a singular past: He’s a onetime philosopher who opted instead for the police, since at least there — or so he argues — one can sidestep the murkier waters of matters of right and wrong.
That realm, of course, is exactly the one that brings Henry to the end of his rope, abetted by a speech about “common decency” from a moralistic hotelier, no less, that the play could do without. (Later meditations on God’s mercy read like a last-ditch effort to pump up the story.) Recently seen to excellent effect as Ian McKellen’s brother in “An Enemy of the People,” Moore long ago perfected his stooped-shouldered take on the English Everyman that here includes a seduction scene to rival for suppressed eroticism the early overtures in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.”
Playing the object of his unforeseen attentions, the always reliable Jones hasn’t been so warmly appealing in ages. Indeed, amid the present youth-obsessed climate on stage and screen, there’s something welcoming about a play where lust doesn’t let up once the hairs start to gray.
Cornwell has less stage time in which to convey her effortless chic, but she’s an ever-sharp, spry cog in the play’s widening conundrums. At the performance caught (not the opening night), incidentally, the actress didn’t appear at the curtain call. At most plays, that might not matter; here, it’s a neat (and understandable) touch to ensure that “Disposing of the Body” unnerves you all the way home.