How’s this for strange: The most immediately topical play on a New York stage right now was written in England almost a century ago. A woman’s right to an abortion, the separation of church and state, a politician’s career jeopardized by a sex scandal — current headline hot buttons rise out of the genteel Edwardian chatter of Harley Granville Barker’s “Waste” with startling consistency, practically poking us in the eye with their urgent relevance.
Banned by the English censor in 1907, “Waste” wasn’t produced in England until 1936, and is making its rather tardy U.S. debut in this handsomely designed, thoughtfully staged production from Theater for a New Audience. The timing couldn’t be better. In a year that promises a bruising political battle for the U.S. presidency, “Waste” is a refreshing reminder that the more cynical expediencies of politics are not exclusively indigenous to American soil.
Granville Barker’s play examines the downfall of a fiercely idealistic politician, Henry Trebell (Byron Jennings), who is seduced into abandoning his independence to affiliate with the conservatives when they promise to back his cause, a bill that will end state support for the Church of England and channel the money saved into an ambitious educational plan.
The first act takes place in the salon of a country home, where political alliances are sealed over port and Chopin played by dewy-eyed young ladies. In this case, however, the Chopin is played by gimlet-eyed conservative party power broker Lady Julia Farrant (Pamela Nyberg), who has secured Trebell’s allegiance to the party of her husband George (Bill Buell) and the future prime minister Cyril Horsham (Ross Bickell).
But when the piano-playing and politicking are over, Trebell unwittingly sets the stage for his own demise. In a rare moment snatched from the embrace of his true love, his political cause, Trebell dallies with the bewitching Amy O’Connell (Kristen Flanders), a woman whose long separation from her Irish republican husband causes trouble when she finds she’s pregnant.
Her tragic death at the hands of a backstreet abortionist precipitates a crisis that takes up much of the play’s latter half, as the conservative cabinet gathers to persuade the aggrieved Justin O’Connell (Graeme Malcolm) to keep quiet about the details of his wife’s death. But united as they are in the cause to quell the scandalous talk, the future cabinet is less than uniform in its attitude to the disgraced Trebell.
In this, the play’s most quietly compelling scene, Granville Barker subtly and incisively reveals that the most secure and highly touted political alliances are really just houses of cards that can crumble at a misplaced word, a missed cue. Both a good man and a good plan can be undone by the ruthlessly, if cordially, pursued self-interest of a single politician whom the others cannot afford to alienate.
Director Bartlett Sher, newly appointed a.d. of Seattle’s Intiman Theater, choreographs this delicately shaded scene with meticulous care, so that each detail strikes home with just the right emphasis. The dialogue crackles deliciously, as when Horsham declines Trebell’s offer to face down the gossips and admit the truth. “Public life is not to be lived nowadays, I fear, on such heroic heights,” he says with incomparable understatement, setting you thinking about how much or how little has changed in the past century.
The play contains a wealth of small but crisply written roles, and Sher has elicited many fine performances. Bickell is excellent as Horsham, the wily, pragmatic future prime minister who knows instantly when the game is up, and acts accordingly. Richard Easton plays Lord Charles Cantilupe, the church leader whose abandonment of Trebell is ultimately fatal, with perfect feeling for the man’s mixture of kindness and moral probity, but also his self-regard. Jordan Charney and Henry Stram also offer nicely rendered portraits, and virtually all of the cast has creditable English accents.
Also full of tasteful English accents is the elegant set design of John Arnone, which economically fashions various offices and homes from a few sets of neoclassical French doors and period furnishings. Christopher Akerlind’s gentle lighting and Martin Pakledinaz’s Edwardian stylish gowns add considerably to the visual appeal of the production.
But appealing as it is to the eye as well as the mind, both play and production don’t quite have the heart that would make its near three hours pass by fleetingly. Invaluable in this respect is Brenda Wehle as Trebell’s doting sister Frances, who has sacrificed a career to give her single brother a proper English home. Wehle’s performance carries a quiet but insistent spark of feeling that reveals a certain weakness in the play.
Written by a legendary theater man strongly influenced by Shaw, in whose plays he performed to much acclaim, “Waste” is long on words and wisdom but a little cold-blooded, particularly in its depiction of the central character, Henry Trebell. His impassioned orations on the nobility of his plan to disenfranchise the church are rather more convincing than his brief but passionate wooing of Mrs. O’Connell in act one, or the gestures of regret for the loss of her life later on.
Jennings is a capable, experienced actor, and he gives a respectable performance, but for the play to take on an emotional dimension we need to feel something stronger for Trebell than admiration for his dedication and unsentimental attachment to noble causes. Jennings doesn’t succeed in supplying the something extra that would turn him into a man whose fate actually moves us. As it is, the ideas in the play are still provocative, and almost uncannily relevant, but “Waste” doesn’t appear to have the eternal radioactivity of a real work of art.