Not every dysfunctional family drama contains lines like, “It is art to fly speech in the air,” but Joanna Laurens’ Almeida Theater entry “Five Gold Rings” has loftier things in mind than the mere settling of domestic scores. In her sophomore play following her much-praised debut effort “The Three Birds” (which I missed), Laurens wants to reinvent the discourse in such plays, trading in a time-worn naturalism for a heightened language that less charitably inclined playgoers likely will find wearing.
That the evening possesses the considerable fascination it does honors both director Michael Attenborough, in his second consecutive play at this address as Almeida a.d. (following Neil LaBute’s “The Mercy Seat”), and a blue-chip cast of British theater veterans (David Calder) and ascending younger talents (Damian Lewis, Helen McCrory), all of whom are in top form. Sure, “Five Gold Rings” may sound at times as if it has been translated from Latin, but it’s unlikely to encounter more gifted interpreters.
Laurens seems well aware of the specific parameters of her writing, remarking in a program interview: “I’m dubious whether my language would work on film. I think it would be ridiculous.” That’s putting it mildly. And not everyone will warm to the stage-worthiness of this dramatist’s apparent avidity for linguistic inversion (Will Keen’s Simon is described as “the born-first son”), peculiar past tenses (“you gived me one,” “sleeped”), and internal rhymes (“into the sea” and “intimacy”) that suggest Arthur Miller’s Puritan-era patois from “The Crucible” refracted through, say, Christopher Fry. At times the language suggests operatic surtitles that have been scrambled in transmission. One character urges another to “give it you back me,” while Calder’s faux-Lear of a paterfamilias says of his late wife, “She was ever my only.”
Some would say Laurens needs such linguistic posturing to inflate a play that, in outline, could not be more familiar: a Christmas-season clash between a father (Calder), his two sons (Keen and Lewis), and their wives (McCrory and Indira Varma), the last of whom come bearing names by way of Shakespeare and Ibsen — Miranda and Freyja. But just as Laurens forsakes the naturalism that, she argues, has “clogged up” the theater, designer Es Devlin’s sparely dressed stage abandons domestic detail in favor of a tilted disc dominated by a chair: an elemental setting for a story that speaks in an almost self-parodically exalted tongue. (Among the few concessions to realism: a brief scene in which the holiday revelers play Monopoly in party hats!)
There’s nothing particularly elevated about the characters’ concerns in a plot that will encompass numerous recriminations, hints of incest and rape and various dances with death before the play comes to a close, though Laurens has a way of making even the most commonplace confessions of inadequacy — impotence, for one — sound odd, to say the least: “She sings my stick asleep,” in this mock-poetic instance.
“Five Gold Rings” is that rare contemporary play to demand from its actors a finesse for language, which makes one that much more grateful to find a company skilled at elocution while also absolutely modern in style and stance. As directed quite vibrantly by Attenborough, the play is rarely the arch experimental exercise that it surely would be in lesser hands. All five actors bring their work in the classical canon to bear on Laurens’ deliberately distorted verse, and one only wishes that the ever-elegant Varma — returning to the Almeida for the first time since the preem of Harold Pinter’s “Celebration” — had more to do.
The rest strip themselves bare emotionally (and, in Keen’s case, literally) in a mighty effort to give flesh to a pretty high-flown endeavor. Playing the “old and foolish” Henry (that sounds like Lear to me), an impoverished patriarch who has been relegated for some unknown reason to the desert, Calder gives wounding, abject weight to some fanciful writing, as does a particularly sleek, feline McCrory, playing her father-in-law’s usurper of sorts. And taking a break from a TV career, “Band of Brothers” star (and Almeida alum) Lewis brings a ravaged intensity to the scheming younger brother, Daniel. Spitting the second-act bile some will bring to the play as a whole, Lewis is one of the reasons “Five Gold Rings” keeps you glued to the end.