Sweet is probably the wrong word for Howard Barker’s “Victory,” but you could certainly argue that it smells like napalm in the morning. Set in the wreckage of post-Cromwell England, Barker’s 1983 play sketches a remarkably familiar world run by decadent politicians and corrupt industrialists negotiating amid piles of corpses. In PTP/NYC’s uneven production, Jan Maxwell and David Barlow are excellent as a bloodlessly practical war widow and a foppish Charles II, but the fundamental Britishness of the subject matter obscures the play’s universal themes, and thus the show may be more interesting to Barker’s fans than to casual theatergoers.
As always, Barker’s gift for creating devastation with a poetic turn of phrase is on full display here: “We knew,” Maxwell’s character, Bradshaw, says, “while we argued in his little room, the ground was going from under our feet, on late summer evenings crossing the lawn, felt the threat in the shadows under the trees, and the mockery of the placid fountain.” As the worst has come to pass, Bradshaw sets out to reclaim her life in any way she can, first attempting to recover the dismembered pieces of her revolutionary husband, which are being used by the new crop of childish courtiers to frighten each other.
Barlow does a great deal for this production as the tremendously crass King Charles Stuart. He and Maxwell play beautifully at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum and create a strange kind of chemistry, though their characters are rarely in the same room together. She’s eminently controlled and pragmatic; he’s driven entirely by whim, and Barlow manages to make Charles’ worst excesses, if not fun to watch, at least fascinating.
The third storyline in the play, somewhat at odds with Bradshaw’s journey (a nod to “Antigone”) and the debauchery of the court (with its winks at the bawdy comedy of the period) follows the quiet, polite, Machievellian consortium of businessmen who are preparing to take over the running of the country — into the present day, Barker seems to assert. There’s no corresponding touchstone from theater history for these sequences, but the sight of Charles’ crass mistress, Nell Gwynn (a wonderful Ele Woods), taunting the 17th-century equivalent of Lloyd Blankfein is a wonder to behold.
It would be nice to say that between Maxwell and Barlow (along with impressive turns throughout the large cast, notably Robert Emmet Lunney as Ball, a lust-crazed cavalier), the production manages to elucidate a play steeped in British politics for American audiences. But it doesn’t, at least not entirely.
Although helmer Richard Romagnoli is very good at staging individual encounters, his best stab at tying the whole intriguing mess of a script together is to incorporate some frankly silly dancing in between scenes and to play punk music ranging from Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” to the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” at every opportunity. It doesn’t work.
While it’s less than the sum of its parts, there’s a great deal to recommend “Victory,” especially if you’re familiar with Barker. (PTP/NYC revives him and occasionally premieres him on American soil with gratifying regularity.) But staging this writer is occasionally as difficult as reading one of his lengthy manifesti, and this isn’t quite the production it could have been.