It adds up to little more than its title, but “Nothing” makes for a pleasant diversion all the same. An acidic comedy adapted by Andrea Hart from Henry Green’s novel, the play covers the familiar territory of how parents can ruin their children and narcissists can ruin themselves. The themes do produce a few jolts of pathos, but even soft emotions become set-ups for bursts of coal-black wit.
Hart, who also co-stars, builds a sleek comic machine by winnowing Green’s 200 page novel — in which rich, wine-soaked old friends decide to marry just days after their children get engaged to each other, sending both families into hysterics — to 80 minutes. Almost every word serves the plot, giving the play breathless comic propulsion. Even the early exposition jumps into the action so neatly that back stories never slow the banter.
Such sharp pacing provides “Nothing” with sophistication, and the cast is equally sleek. Making their New York legit debuts, British thesps Simon Dutton and Sophie Ward (also co-producers here) prove themselves pillars of arch, impeccable timing.
As John — who burns for Ward’s Jane but can’t seem to stop sleeping with Liz (Hart) — Dutton injects what could be a typical rake with an almost innocent charm. His easy smile and relaxed posture suggest he remains carefree while his friends and family drive themselves mad. This attitude gives certain jokes extra bite, like when he pretends to marry Jane’s unseen, six-year-old daughter Penelope. Baffled by the little girl’s fear at his advances, he says, “You can’t think it was indecent?”
John’s genuine shock that actions have consequences provides a scorching satire of how adults warp young minds.
Ward warps people from the opposite side, making Jane every bit as frantic and judgmental as John is lackadaisical. The character essentially exists to launch withering put-downs — often disguised as concern for her son Philip (Peter Ashmore) and his plans to marry John’s daughter Mary (Candida Benson) — but thesp gives a unique cadence to each insult.
Ward’s masterful exasperation — eye-rolls and sighs say she thinks she’s the smartest of the lot — helps her draw laughs from lines that could sound merely spiteful. Her matter-of-fact tone, for instance, is just what’s needed to make her description of Liz amusing. “I don’t have a problem with her,” Jane says, “only that she’s a horrid beast and doesn’t deserve to live.”
The design creates an ideal environment for these naughty creatures. Director-designer Philip Prowse’s simple set — consisting mostly of barroom tables — is clean and elegant. And when the back wall opens during a party scene, the ballroom walls are a viciously deep red.
Lighting designer Gerry Jenkinson works to indicate the actual human feelings that may wriggle beneath the epigrams. Most obviously, he holds Philip and Mary in spotlights as they discuss their engagement on the phone, sitting at opposite ends of the stage. While the young couple fumbles for affectionate terms they haven’t mastered, Jenkinson’s spotlights make them seem isolated and lonely. Though the beams of the light cross above their heads, they themselves cannot touch.
Of course, that sad fact hardly dampens the comedy at hand, even when it’s reiterated in a symbolic conclusion. Ten gallons of bile cannot be diluted by a splash of regret.
But really, who needs empathy when malice provides such a good time?