There are far better plays in London — most of them, actually — than “You Be Ted and I’ll Be Sylvia,” but I doubt there’s a braver actress currently on view than Nichola McAuliffe. Not many plays require the leading lady to portray an insufferable lesbian snob with an incestuous past who ends her days in full and gory view of the audience submerged in an onstage tank. Add in the realization that McAuliffe came late to Simon Smith’s play, following the departure of original lead Kathryn Pogson (London’s first Aunt Dan in the Wallace Shawn play), and it becomes clear that McAuliffe deserves more than applause. How about a red badge of courage?
The play is otherwise both too brief and too minor to pose a serious endurance test for audiences, who may be mystified how so scattershot and ill-considered a text made it through the series of readings outlined in the program. In any case, there’s something valiant about McAuliffe’s willingness to give her all to a cause that isn’t so much lost as it is lunatic, as if in direct response to the relentless froideur of McAuliffe’s grandly accented Wendy.
The actress plays a well-regarded conceptual artist arrived back after some years to her hometown in the Midlands to make a public sculpture honoring the women of Wignall. The commission means reacquainting herself with an ailing mother (Mary Wimbush) now dying of cancer who is tended to by the cheerily blunt Stella (Susan Brown) and her perky sidekick, Tasha (Danielle Tilley).
Anyone expecting a lachrymose reunion drama, however, will discover precisely the opposite: Wendy is mostly unmoved by the plight of her mother — instead, she directs her attention (amorously) toward Tasha — and prompts a final filial reckoning, complete with sudden expostulations like, “You ruined my life.”
Actually, Wendy has demonstrated what would seem to be a creative approach to the lives of others, including an artwork comprised in equal measure of her late father’s ashes and her own menstrual blood. Cue the expected jokes about Brit-art bad boy Damien Hirst (concurrently being made mockery of in the National’s new “Candide”) alongside references to the hapless literary couple, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, cited in the title. At least the play has the good grace not to incorporate an oven.
Robert Jones’ smart set moves smoothly from a home whose inmates pass their time making bonnets to Wendy’s new, sleek abode, which is as minimal as her bitterness and frustration are immense. (Not for nothing does Stella compare her to Caligula.) As for the script, it’s hard to impute much consistency to writing that finds one character familiar both with Plath’s life and with surfing the Net but seemingly ignorant of olives, while at least two others do little beyond staring open-eyed in disbelief. Under Jonathan Church’s direction, veteran thesp Wimbush makes something quietly moving of the put-upon mom even as she becomes de facto the play’s onstage critic, monitoring proceedings with a growing look of alarm.