They stand onstage, comfortably sheathed in cardigans and sensible skirts, casually chatting as if across a garden fence. The tone is friendly, even conspiratorial — if there weren’t so many of us in the audience, surely they’d offer to make a pot of tea. But by the time their confidences have concluded, the women (and one man) in Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads” will stand naked before us, figuratively speaking, of course. The slivers of malice in their hearts, the desperate loneliness behind the mask of social propriety, the comforting delusions: All will be exposed, as if by a literary X-ray, through Bennett’s simultaneously compassionate and merciless manipulation of his characters’ voices.
The sound of the voice, in fact, is of paramount importance here, which explains why one of these two evenings of monologues is more effective — and affecting — than the other, although both inspire immense admiration for Bennett’s acid-laced, pitch-perfect cameo portraits.
These characters are British from the depths of their souls to the fastidious set of their sweaters, and the rhythms of their speech and the particular plink of their accents reveal almost as much about their limited lives as the actual texts do. (There is little staging to speak of here — a sip of sherry here, a careful tending of the chignon there.)
When the voice sounds slightly off, as it sometimes does here, the effectiveness of the interpretation inevitably suffers. But on the whole, Michael Engler’s admirable staging of these intricate portraits of middle-class desolation is a tasty theatrical delicacy.
The lesser but still worthy program begins with one of the lightest and slightest items, “The Hand of God.” Brenda Wehle plays a self-satisfied widow who runs an antique shop in a small village. When the ailing great lady of the town begins to succumb, Celia smells an annuity and begins paying visits to the sickbed.
Perfunctory clucks of sympathy — “Thin little hand. Like dried leaves. Tragic.” — are followed by a heartier description of the “lovely bedside table with pie-crust molding.”
In the end, Celia’s greed is severely punished in circumstances a little too predictable. Wehle’s able performance is at its best in the final moments, when she presents us with a newly humbled Celia sitting forlornly among her dwindling inventory, her pride in her shop shaken by public embarrassment.
Smothered in a dowdy wig and goofy spectacles, Christine Ebersole is hardly recognizable as Miss Ruddock in “A Lady of Letters,” Bennett’s hilarious portrait of a busybody whose eccentricity verges on something darker.
The author gradually reveals the real mania that underlies Miss Ruddock’s endless stream of complaining missives. He also gently hints at the profound isolation that is its cause: Like most of the characters here, Ruddock turns to us as a repository for her confessions because she has no one else.
The language is deliciously, often almost surreally funny: “The correspondence I initiated on the length of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s hair seems to have gone off the boil,” Miss Ruddock declares in a particularly Orton-esque manner.
And Ebersole’s clipped, brisk delivery does it justice, neatly accentuating her character’s prim officiousness. But the accent is nowhere near the mark, really, and at times one senses Ebersole’s laser-like instincts as a comedienne getting the better of her abilities as an actress. The performance skirts caricature.
The last woman we meet is the most tenderly and richly drawn. Susan, played by Kathleen Chalfant, is the wife of a village vicar who is fundamentally ill-equipped for the job. As she freely confesses, she possesses no talent for flower-arranging and, come to think of it, not exactly an abiding faith in God, either.
Chalfant uses the husky burr in her voice to poignant effect in a graceful and subtle performance that charts Susan’s brief emotional and sexual awakening on a “Bed Among the Lentils” at the back of a shop run by a young Indian man.
But anyone who has seen Maggie Smith’s softly shattering interpretation of the role — either in the TV version or onstage in London — may feel that Chalfant never reveals the deeper recesses of anguish beneath the studiously ironical exterior, possibly because, as an American, she doesn’t come naturally to the syntactical intricacies of that irony, in some of Bennett’s finest writing in the series.
By contrast, the performers in the second program all capture the voices of their characters with an apparent ease and precision that frees them to unleash all the satirical mirth and the understated compassion in Bennett’s writing. Indeed, Valerie Mahaffey, an utter delight as an aspiring actress with delusions of competence in “Her Big Chance,” manages to soften the pointed edge of condescension in Bennett’s writing through the ditzy warmth of her performance.
The dynamic between audience and performer here is slightly malicious — Bennett’s characters often think they are telling us one thing, when what we hear is quite the opposite.
As Mahaffey’s Lesley describes, with sincerity and pride, her odyssey on the set of what is plainly a cheesy exploitation pic (in more ways than one, for this good-time girl), the audience regularly interrupts her with explosions of laughter.
These are evoked by poor Lesley’s unwitting revelation of her silly pretensions and naivete bordering on idiocy. (“The film’s coming out in West Germany initially, then Turkey possibly. Gunther says it will make me quite famous. Well, I suppose I shall have to live with that.”)
But Mahaffey imbues the character with a sweet-spirited obliviousness that forgives our cruelty. Lesley greets the laughter as if it were applause, with an ingratiating smile that says, “I know, isn’t it wonderful?”
Daniel Davis’ Graham, in “A Chip in the Sugar,” has much to forgive, too. A middle-aged man who lives at home and lovingly tends his aged mother, Graham is dismayed when mum suddenly takes up with an old suitor and begins making plans for another marriage.
His prissy jealousy and exasperation are initially hilarious, but we gradually come to know that he isn’t just a social misfit but a man with a history of mental illness. The actor’s sensitive depiction of Graham’s increasing desolation and confusion is painful and moving; we’re helpless to answer the bewilderment in his wide, beseeching eyes.
Lynn Redgrave is likewise exceptionally fine in “Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet,” which also mixes pathos and oddball humor in equal portions. Miss F. is a proper English spinster who has a bit of foot trouble — from standing all day at her job selling “soft furnishings.”
She’s got a handful at home, too: She lives with and now must care for her ill-tempered brother, who has just suffered a stroke. When her gallant new chiropodist asks her to help ease his back pain by walking all over him in rubber boots, she sees no impropriety and gladly shares the tale with Estelle in floor coverings, with humiliating results.
Miss Fozzard’s struggles to cope with the shame she feels are depicted with wonderful transparency by Redgrave. At its best, Bennett’s writing in these pieces, originally penned for TV, honors the surprising depths of suffering that can plague seemingly small spirits and shallow lives.
Redgrave’s deeply felt, delicately observed performance underscores this element of compassion in Bennett’s meticulous exposure of the comically petty tribulations of his characters’ experience. And in Miss Fozzard’s case, suffering has its rewards. “People don’t like to think you have a proper life, that’s what I’ve decided,” she says in the depths of her embarrassment. “I never thought I had a life.” When her chat comes to an end, Miss Fozzard’s face fills with a subdued but distinct flush of pride and pleasure when she discovers that, in fact, she does.