Writer’s block and failed idealism atop the craggy cliffs of Cornwall circa WWI is hardly the obvious stuff of old-fashioned summertime comedy. Amy Rosenthal’s new play, “On the Rocks,” never quite manages to overcome this disparity between form and content, and is further lumbered by the playwright’s apparent thrall to real-life writers D.H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield, whose lives she attempts to dramatize.
Paul Burgess’ naturalistic, claustrophobic set presents us with the interior of two cottages where Lawrence (Ed Stoppard), his German wife Frieda (Tracy-Ann Oberman) and their friends Mansfield (Charlotte Emmerson) and John Middleton Murry (Nick Caldecott) made an attempt at quasi-communal living between 1916-18.
The characters are introduced as a series of types: Lawrence the wild, selfish idealist; Frieda the sexed-up battleaxe; Mansfield the primly tortured artist; and Murry the mannered intellectual. Given this schematic setup, the plot and eventual outcome are easily predictable: early contentment, then growing conflict, ending with the splintering of the group.
There is interesting detail about this period as a source of Lawrence’s “Women in Love,” about local suspicions concerning the Lawrences because of his pacifism and her suspect nationality, and about the combined fascination and resentment of all four characters with the more fashionable Bloomsbury Group.
Rosenthal has clearly done good research, but possibly too much of it; the play lacks a strong plot through-line, perhaps because the writer was too reticent to embroider on known facts. The result is suggestions of subplots — particularly sexual ones — that never quite take form, most intriguingly when Murry takes up Lawrence’s challenge to wrestle because “I feel sometimes… a deep affection for you… and I don’t know quite how to express it.”
Any hints of homoeroticism are pushed to one side, however, by playing the subsequent wrestling match as slapstick, one of many instances in which Rosenthal and director Claire Lizzimore’s instincts toward exaggerated comedy undermine more serious engagement with the issues the play raises.
The actors commit faithfully to the types they are given to play, with the result that they inhabit different theatrical universes: Stoppard and Caldecott seem closest together in a slightly heightened comedy of manners, while Emmerson gives a committed, convincing performance that would not be out of place in a costume drama. Taking cues from a role that requires her to smash a plate over her husband’s head within two minutes of coming on stage and to talk incessantly about food and sex, Oberman is in the world of bedroom farce.
The overriding sense is of a play out of tune with itself and oddly out of step with the times: Post “The Hours,” a depiction of early 20th century Brit writers that takes such a straight-down-the-line biographical approach seems irretrievably retro.