A latter-day song-and-dance man makes a belated and revelatory return to the non-musical stage in “A Reckoning,” in which Jonathan Pryce — better known of late as a West End Fagin and Henry Higgins — reminds audiences of his classical theater roots. Not that American writer Wesley Moore’s play, receiving its world preem, is anything approaching a classic, and many may wonder why it hasn’t been relegated to TV. But playing Spencer, a father taken to the cleaners (well, more accurately, to court) by his vengeful daughter Irene (Flora Montgomery), Pryce brings decades of theatrical discipline to bear on a role that many a lesser, more showy actor might play emotively by rote. Instead, Pryce’s containment is at least as dramatic as the generational give-and-take of a play that, to be truthful, sometimes seems gerrymandered. By never once exploding and indulging the cheap effect, Pryce conveys a persistent, not easily explicable pain.
Moore’s drama could well become a theatrical staple, since it is in the tradition of plays such as “Oleanna” and “How I Learned to Drive” that pit a younger woman against an older man. When first glimpsed in his San Francisco aerie, the lights of the Bay Bridge twinkling in the distance courtesy of Paule Constable’s lighting, Spencer is attempting his own reckoning — namely, with the memory of his late wife, to whom he would have been married 29 years that very day.
In comes Irene — “Reenie” to her father, though she hates the nickname — nursing grievances to make dad do a double-take or two into his Merlot. She gets him talking on the topic of therapy, only to ambush him with a fusillade of accusations all her own. On the first anniversary of her mother’s death, Irene has come to lay waste to father, in the process toppling a man who describes himself breezily as being “closer to God.” (Why else, reasons Spencer, who is an architect, should one live on the 20th floor?)
Under Richard Seyd’s direction, “A Reckoning” positions its parry and thrust across six scenes, Laura Hopkins’ none-too-steady set shifting locations to encompass Spencer’s office, a courthouse and the apartment of Irene, who is starting her own career in design. But the physical terrain is nothing compared to the land mine that’s detonated as father and daughter circle warily around each other.
Irene’s charges against dad are accompanied by memories of being force-fed and almost drowned by a father prone to attacking his daughter with tweezers. When Spencer wasn’t present, he apparently was off having affairs. And at home, he was emotionally absent.
A richer play might complicate the familial cut-and-thrust so that the reliability of the two speakers was constantly, intriguingly in doubt. Instead, Irene sometimes comes across as a 27-year-old termagant with a forbiddingly American fondness for the law. (If nothing else, this play’s view of the American penchant for litigation may well endear it to a British public.) Before long, Spencer is being asked to sign a document confessing to having battered his own daughter, and it is to the actors’ credit that a consistently engaged audience — far from feeling battered itself — pays riveted witness as every domestic scab gets scratched.
One could envision these same two players taking the main parts in “Skylight,” the David Hare play that builds to the kind of exalted intensity of which “A Reckoning” can only dream. But given the many undoubtedly grim summer-stock airings of Moore’s play that surely lie in wait, there’s all the more reason to cheer the unsentimental interplay of a cast who communicate the sort of knotted family dynamic that is synonymous with damage.
Montgomery looks a little like Lia Williams, the original London lead in “Skylight,” and shares with Williams an ability to suggest the restless, heaving ache behind the somewhat formulaic rant. (Seen one false memory syndrome drama, it seems, and you’ve seen them all.) Ladling out recollections of increasing severity at ruthlessly regular intervals, Montgomery is no abstract embodiment of mental pathology but a woman in fierce pursuit of a truth-telling that no amount of recourse to the law will ever bring forth.
Pryce has the fuller, more sympathetic role and totally nails it, the actor projecting exactly the “tired luster” that Spencer refers to himself. (In context, he is far too quicksilver a performer to need the attempts at comic relief provided by Spencer’s problems with his hair.) Making the audience squirm as he acknowledges to Irene that “all we have left in the world is each other,” Pryce gently peels back layers of repression to make one stop and wonder of Spencer just how many other woeful stories Irene has within her that she cannot tell.
In “My Fair Lady,” Pryce offered an indelible portrait of that walking automaton Higgins’ awakening into humanity. “A Reckoning” does the reverse, asking what happens when that most human of people — a parent — is seen to have no heart.