Nothing beats the sound of a theatergoer suddenly (and volubly) waking up to snap a forgivably dozy house to attention, as was proved rather more dramatically than a certain British thesp might have bargained for on the opening night of Peter Whelan’s new play, “The Earthly Paradise.” There we were, patiently enduring lines like, “I want to paint, not die of boredom” — touché to that! — when a noted actor awakened from his slumber in the stalls with a highly audible, “What?”
That I’m afraid, is about as lively as the evening got — especially since, truth to tell, the actor wasn’t missing much.
To be fair, there probably exists a playgoing public for this show, starting with those nostalgic for what used to be termed “Masterpiece Theater theater,” to describe a certain kind of suffocatingly genteel fare. But most such entries were better acted than Whelan’s mock-rarefied drama, which would barely pass muster on a bad night on PBS and is miscast in two of the three defining roles of director Robert Delamere’s production. (Sean Gilder is very good in the small part of a manservant of Pinteresque comic proportions.)
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And while there may be a voyeuristic frisson to be had from peering into the erotic (or not) rondelay between William Morris (Nigel Lindsay), his wife and mother of their two children, Janey (Saffron Burrows), and her admirer Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Alan Cox), one’s patience is quickly tried by writing along the lines of, “Aren’t I the man who once had Lewis Carroll to tea?” It’s bad enough in plays when people impart information to one another that they would surely already know, but the device seems particularly egregious when characters take to posing questions of themselves to which they alone hold the answer.
Whelan has trawled comparably quasi-biographical terrain before, most notably in “The Herbal Bed,” which was at least clever enough to pursue the Bardic bandwagon from the perspective of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susannah. “Earthly Paradise,” by contrast, hits its highbrow targets head on, picking up on the menage in the summer of 1871 where the scene is set for a rural English variant on “Jules and Jim.”
By this point, Rossetti has suffered a stillborn child and a psychotic wife, so you believe him when he remarks, “I toil and moil”(!), the artist’s fondness for linguistic archaisms perhaps greater than his actual desire for stablehand’s daughter Janey, who was his muse.
Was Janey also his mistress? Whelan attempts to squeeze some tension out of the did they/didn’t they question, but this is hardly the first portrait of a trio of putative free spirits to suggest that, in the final analysis, male bonding will win out. (Well, it wasn’t called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for nothing, was it?)
Simon Higlett’s set makes something warm and gently seductive out of the stone splendor of Kelmscott Manor, the Oxfordshire home (long a tourist attraction) that was first jointly rented by Morris and Rossetti. Chris Davey’s lighting, too, has an almost palpable softness, as befits a play steeped in the interplay between artists.
But for all the production’s visual allure, the evening is all but scuppered by writing only marginally less overripe than helmer Delamere’s previous Almeida offering, Sebastian Barry’s “Whistling Psyche” last May.
Burrows, a commanding physical presence but highly erratic actress, has enough working against her without also having to inhabit “the holy grail we were all looking for from the start.” Cox, in turn, does a mean arched eyebrow, but the perf is too knowing by half, even without three veiled (or not) references to critics — “They’ll be there somewhere,” Rossetti intones ominously — to keep the first-night audience smirking into their programs.
Lindsay has previously shown a flair for romantic despair in the Donmar revival of “The Real Thing,” and he’s no less engaging as the genial epicenter of a far-from-idyllic erotic Eden. (It’s not this fine actor’s fault that Morris is needlessly compared to Shakespeare’s Prospero.) But the drama of dystopia that “The Earthly Paradise” could well have been speedily fades from view, replaced by a new dissection of the eternal triangle that here seems to last a lifetime.