Joanne Pearce has waited an age for a role that might make a virtue of her breathiness, and in Simon Block’s “A Place at the Table,” she finally has one. In the past, this large-eyed performer’s habit of exhaling every line has been an actressy irritant that reached a low in 1993 when she played Ophelia to Kenneth Branagh’s Royal Shakespeare Co. Hamlet. But as Sarah, a nicotine-addicted script developer who came to TV from the world of the theater, Pearce has a rare chance to be funny and (whether knowingly or not) send her own mannerisms up. The result is one of four crack performances in a lively if somewhat predictably argued play that — following separate commissions for the Royal Court and the Hampstead — confirms dramatist Block’s place at the table even as Pearce takes her own fresh and warmly welcomed perch.
When not insisting throatily on “strong black coffee,” her character bluntly states Block’s unremarkable theme, announcing early on that TV involves “smart, decent people making stupid, vulgar programs.” So what else is new, you ask? (The truly radical play might be the one that dared to extol the small screen.) What enlivens the writing is the specific quartet embodying the various points on the spectrum of a debate that squares Sarah off against Adam (Eddie Marsan), her latest find, a wheelchair-bound writer whose disability — or so Sarah argues — constitutes their shared ticket to success.
Sarah leapt upon Adam (figuratively speaking) following his fringe theater hit, “Jack’s Flat,” which has all the qualities — “sorrow, passion, recognition” comes the feverishly recited list — to make him a writer to reckon with on TV. By the second act some months later, Adam has won awards in his newfound discipline but not without complications.
Has he written “a disabled sitcom” or, less patronizingly, “a sitcom about disability”? It’s a measure of the surprises lying below the play’s familiar surface that the speakers of each phrase aren’t the obvious ones. What’s more, even as he digs at political correctness, Block permits himself the odd off-color joke: after all, can you really dismiss a project for having “insufficient legs” when its creator barely has use of his? (Movement, indeed, is encoded in showbiz vocabulary: Just think, as Block has us do here, of shows that “run and run.”)
Monitoring the duo’s shifting duel are Sarah’s co-workers, possessed of varying degrees of ambition and attitude. New recruit Rachel (Katharine Burford) wants nothing less than not to be noticed, though Burford’s ace delivery ensures the opposite. Sammy (James Lance), the resident “runner” (note the lingo!), has aspirations to go with the snazzy dark suit in which he is eventually seen, and it’s not his fault if Sammy gets the bulk of Block’s descent into accusatory rant.
One does at times wonder whether “A Place at the Table” wouldn’t be better off in the medium that it claims to despise. For all the meatiness of the issues raised, Block could just as well be fueling a studio discussion on the BBC’s “Late Review” as dramatizing matters of artistic pressure and compromise that extend well beyond the arena of disability alone. He’s helped no end, then, to have in Julie-Anne Robinson’s staging a model of Bush-style intimacy, from Bruce Macadie’s aptly chic-bordering-on-faceless set to the seamless acting of a company exhibiting the effortless naturalism associated with, well, TV.
The excellent Marsan has often been cast as an inarticulate onlooker, so it’s a pleasure to find his Adam driving the play with passion and wit: “Is ‘The Caretaker’ less poignant,” Adam asks, keen to carve a career separate from his disability, “because Pinter never was one?” So what if a key second-act riposte sounds stale, trading as it does on the Beat-era distinction between writing and typing (what about word processing, one wants to ask)? Far happier is a lovely speech elsewhere in which he lets rip on the joys of writing as his malformed body lurches across the room. “I won’t be bottled and labeled,” says Adam, and, in its finer moments, nor will a play that makes one’s choice of bottled water (“still or sparkling?”) into an abiding question about how to live, even as the staging itself settles for sparkling.