As the salesmen famously agree in the opening number of “The Music Man,” “Ya gotta know the territory.” Howard Davies, the U.K.’s finest director of American drama, certainly does. His revivals of “The Iceman Cometh” with Kevin Spacey, “Mourning Becomes Electra” with Eve Best and Helen Mirren and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with Ian Charleson and Lindsay Duncan have passed into legend. By which token, Davies and a long-overlooked 1960 Tennessee Williams play should have been a winning ticket. What nobody noticed was that “Period of Adjustment” is a comedy.
With Williams involved, can symbolism be far behind? Ralph and Dorothea’s rickety house is astride a canyon so, sure enough, there’s a tremor beneath them at a suitably high-stakes plot point. Williams was not so po-faced as to miss how heavy-handed this might be, so throughout the rest of the play he offsets such dramatic rumblings with amusing musings on two crisis-ridden marriages.
Ralph Bates (Jared Harris) and George Haverstick (Benedict Cumberbatch) are best buddies from Texas who fought together in two wars. Ralph, however, is newly home alone because on this very day, wife Dorothea (Sandy McDade) has gathered up their 3-year-old son and left after he quit his dull job with her wealthy father. And who should pitch up but long-time-no-see George and Isabel (Lisa Dillon) on their honeymoon.
Actually, as soon as George has deposited his wife and the luggage, he takes off again, leaving the two bereft partners to tell each other — and, of course, the audience — all about their marital disharmony. “I’m afraid I married a stranger,” complains Isabel, revealing that she has suffered a wedding night wrecked by violence and impotence.
Ralph tries to reassure her. With what should be rising comic effect he keeps insisting all that’s needed is a period of adjustment. “George,” he points out, “is a highly strung boy, but they don’t make them any better than him.” And, wouldn’t you know it, George’s return makes flesh the fact that he’s far happier horsing around with his pal than placating his wife, who is growing more upset by the minute.
In other words, we’re back with Williams’ favored subject: the American male in crisis. What makes this examination different is the trajectory. No one is carted off to an asylum, no one even ends up leaving: This is Williams in consoling mode. He even obeys the comic rule of finally restoring happiness to both couples.
By the end of the far stronger second act, the production has wised up to the comedy — Dorothea returns late in the play, armed with blue and pink frilly nightdress ensembles from hell — but it has been too long coming. Together with Ralph and George’s sudden lame-brained scheme to breed Texas longhorns to provide cattle for ever-popular TV Westerns, the over-significant moments, meaningful looks and stretched-out silences make this feel like “Brokeback Mountain” without the sex.
Much of the earnestness derives from miscasting. In a strong quartet of actors, only McDade really engages the audience. Her character may be uptight and tearful, but the actress is relaxed. The others work so hard and in such detail at their roles that, although we’re seriously impressed, we are barely moved.
Cumberbatch is good at indicating male fear of failure, and he in particular handles the added vowel sounds of the Texan drawl with serious aplomb, but neither he nor Harris has the physicality to suggest they’ve been on active service.
As Isabel, Dillon doesn’t walk, she teeters. A trim figure in an early Marilyn Monroe-style tousled wig, she sounds like she’s channeling Holly Hunter at her most febrile Southern, laced with spiraling neuroticism. But with lines like, “You have hit the nail on the head with the head of the hammer,” the part needs lightness of touch rather than stridency.
Mike Britton’s design is the show’s most successful element. His angled, twin-level set vividly conjures the sense of a house perched alarmingly high on a hill. He even provides superbly solid doors and staircases for people to run up and down in true comedy fashion. Would that the production followed his lead.
Yet even a director with a surer handle on absurd comedy would be hard-pressed to make a case for the piece. The warm-glow ending reverses the traditional view of Williams as the poet of thwarted hope. That does not, however, make it seriously worthy of revival, particularly at the Almeida, a theater prestigious enough to make far bolder programming choices.