The year is young, but the 2001 theater year looks unlikely to offer up a loopier evening than “Helping Harry,” which could serve as a dramatic exemplar of what the English mean by tosh. Predictable, gerrymandered, and — on occasion — so overwritten that it looks as if it might float off into the ether, first-time dramatist Valentine Guinness’ play suggests a (not entirely) heterosexual version of Kevin Elyot’s “My Night With Reg” sifted through a screenplay like “Peter’s Friends.” That it retains our interest at all, and it does, is due to a terrifically charming and likable cast who keep you smiling with the characters even while laughing at the contrivances that engulf them.
The play takes place one brisk June night in a third-floor London flat belonging to Davy (Simon Dutton), a hack journalist who has invited over some long-standing chums to tend to the hapless title character, who is described as “a disaster by anyone’s standards.” Harry takes his sweet time arriving, but in the meantime, an increasingly inebriated brigade gathers in a bachelor pad distinguished by a Doors poster and a noticeably stopped clock.
Patrick (Adrian Lukis) has forsaken urban Britain for the pastoral idyll of life as a country sculptor, though he shares with the others an inability to escape his past. Before long, and fueled by booze, secrets come pouring out that lay bare everything from the fate of Davy’s errant guitar to numerous sexual and social indiscretions that reveal at least two of the five fortysomethings to be far from the straight arrows that they might appear.
Phil (James Wilby) is the play’s Jimmy Porter, a noxious and homophobic truth-teller quick to violence and the worst of British public school drinking songs. He is revealed to have a more than passing appreciation of some of east London’s kinkier boites. Antiques dealer Andy (Jay Villiers) admits that he can’t see “the sodding point” of his meaningless life, while Michael (David Michaels) turns out to be the moneyed “poof” (Phil’s mean-spirited description of him) whose status within the higher echelons of the law won’t allow him to come out: “Try being me for 20 years,” he moans.
Guinness, an heir to the brewery fortune as a well as lead singer in the rock band Darling, undoubtedly understands the way alcohol loosens lips, and the chain of revelations might seem less tiring if it weren’t so programmatic. What the playwright cannot yet do is shift from badinage steeped in bile to swathes of poetry, many of them so faux-dreamily reminiscent that it is as if a room full of English achievers were all willing themselves to be Mary Tyrone.
Such passages mark the lone dead spots of Nickolas Grace’s otherwise lively staging, which can’t disguise elegiac tendencies that drag the energy level down. (By play’s end, the men are mourning the cliches — “rolling wheat fields” and the like — that they never had.)
Luckily, the actors all command attention, separately and together, even if one wonders what it was about this particular play that prompted as talented an actor as Wilby, the one-time star of “Maurice,” to make a rare return to the stage. Playing the acidic Phil, Wilby survives not one but two angry exit scenes, though one has to ask how anyone in his right mind would think this character capable of offering up even the slightest balm.
Everyone else is far more sympathetic, from Lukis’ Patrick, forever emending his remarks with endearing sheepishness, until he reaches a recollection lingered over with near-pornographic delight, to Villiers’ suicidal Andy, who requests a wakeup call — wait for it — in time for Armageddon.
“Helping Harry” has one other fundamental secret that won’t go revealed here, but it’s giving nothing away to relate that Armageddon never arrives. What does is an ace cast that lends total conviction to a deeply silly text.