There’s a lot that says “first play” about “The Lucky Ones,” the debut drama from onetime actress Charlotte Eilenberg that wears its author’s inexperience on its sleeve. But just when the action tilts toward melodrama, or a point gets laboriously made for us, the stage comes crackling to life with the unmistakable sound of an artist who knows and (even better) feels her subject, and Hampstead Theater playgoers begin feeling fortuitous, indeed. (By day, Eilenberg is the publicist at the north London venue, though she has passed the PR torch elsewhere during the run of her play.)
The Hampstead attracts a loyal and largely Jewish audience (to that extent, it’s the most New York-like of London venues), who no doubt could keep “The Lucky Ones” on for months. How the same show might hold up in a harsher, more neutral context is open to debate, just as one is left imagining a more thoroughly engaged staging than Matthew Lloyd’s, especially as performed on Dick Bird’s shoddy set. And yet, such cavils aren’t likely to register during those passages — in the second act, particularly — when Eilenberg hits her stride, and the time-honored abrasions wrought by history and family circumstance start bleeding all over again.
The first act occurs in 1968, the year of European revolutionary foment, even if it’s a rural English property dispute of a deliberately provocative sort that fuels the action. Bruno (David Horovitch) and brother-in-law Leo (Anton Lesser), German exiles to Britain, are planning to sell the New Forest cottage owned by their families when a potential buyer, German emigree Lisa Pendry (Kelly Hunter), arrives bearing a grim burden — herself a Berliner, as are the property’s Jewish vendors, Lisa must apologize for an atrocity, namely the Holocaust, that probably meant her father profiteered from the grievous losses of the German Jews. (As Leo argues the point against appeasement, or worse, “The true crime was not the doing but the not doing.”)
“That was then, and this is now,” comes the riposte, as various onlookers attempt to pick away at Leo’s intransigence. But laying into the role with the fury of a pit bull forever gnawing at the prospect of reparations, Lesser communicates a thirst for justice that simply won’t be slaked — even if the narrative machinery demands a contrivance or two to bring the conflict to the boil.
Act two, 30 years later, shows us Leo’s funeral, as his now-grown son Daniel (the superb James Clyde), an actor, reports on an upbringing spent with “a man of passions” whose tit-for-tat temperament made him a monster of a parent. Second-generation Jewish, Daniel has responded to what he terms “the burden of history” — at times, the characters seem to be explicating their dilemmas casebook-style for us — by falling for a Lebanese woman, though that liaison didn’t last. A brief and brilliantly played final scene rewinds the clock 20 years, reviving Leo long enough to make plain a shift in affections that won’t be revealed here. Suffice it to say that Eilenberg wrings intriguing variations on the notion of sleeping with the enemy while showing the separate emotions that get unleashed when dogma and desire collide.
The play’s numerous payoffs follow an attenuated opening that isn’t helped by the feeling that we’re getting a lot of the information twice — Lisa was 6 when WWII broke out; the cottage was used by the relative newcomers to Britain for 13 years. (In the U.K., notes Leo, even the 50-year-old amputee Bruno is fated forever to be “a guest in a host country.”) And only post-intermission do the women in an uneven company rise to the level of the men, with the rather tic-prone Hunter of the beginning deepening into a figure of considerable pathos and passion, her face an eventual testament to the price exacted by emotional restitution. (The actress ages notably deftly, too.)
With Margot Leicester as Bruno’s endearing fusspot of a wife Anna, more than ever offering herself up as an English Olympia Dukakis, the acting honors go to the cross-generational male survivors of a cataclysm that even those too young to have known the Holocaust firsthand cannot put to one side. Though we hardly need Bruno’s daughter Beth (Miranda Foster) to remark “it’s all our histories” to cue us in, “The Lucky Ones” at its best poses lasting questions about the ways in which history is at once healing and hurtful and how individuals needn’t have known premature death in order to die a little in life.