“Annie Hall” remains celebrated for the scene in which Woody Allen and Diane Keaton’s spoken words are wittily contradicted by their thoughts presented in subtitles. Four years later, Peter Nichols’s 1981 title “Passion Play” sent that idea into theatrical orbit. Attaching mouthy alter egos to a married couple, he trapped audiences thrillingly mid-way between withheld secrets and spoken lies. His mid-life adultery tale should darken from laugh-aloud, bitter comedy into aching sadness but although frequent Broadway helmer David Leveaux’s revival manages the former, over-emphatic direction largely robs the evening of cumulative emotional resonance.
The plot in which married James (Owen Teale) and recently widowed Kate (Annabel Scholey) embark upon an affair is standard-issue stuff: A middle-aged man falls for a younger woman who promises no-ties sex and excitement to complement his 25-year-old marriage. Nichols’ treatment, however, is wholly original.
“Divided loyalties. Always tricky.” So says Eleanor (Zoe Wanamaker) to Kate on a night when the latter comes to visit. The phrase nails the difficulties facing her friend but is also a nudge to the audience about the technique the playwright is about to adopt. Unseen by the characters but in full view of the audience, both Eleanor and James are granted alter egos.
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Chipping in with hidden thoughts, suppressed urges and home truths, the interjections of Nell (Samantha Bond) and Jim (Oliver Cotton) allow for a far more inventive version of reality than would otherwise be possible. Upbraiding, cajoling, correcting and goading their other selves, they offer whiplash-fast commentary that pulls the audiences in every direction. Rendering the implicit explicit, they make audiences privy to uncomfortably recognizable and often very funny mixed motives.
For the whole of the first act, the multiplicity of voices adds to the tensions of the plot machinations of betrayal, discovery and its aftermath. But the more emotionally demanding second half wilts beneath problems with the playing.
Much of this is due to pacing. The alter egos turn what is essentially a taut singles match — adulterous husband serves and volleys to trusting, then shocked wife — into a game of mixed doubles. Leveaux’s pacing is not so fast as to be confusing, but his actors too often play the rhythm of exchanges rather than their intent. Because everyone is so busy lining up the next shot, too many lines land with insufficient emotional weight. Nichols depicts the painful unease of compromise but his exposing of wounding lies is here short-changed because the actors have been encouraged to underplay silences. Over-emoting means the upset doesn’t fully register.
There’s a degree of overstatement throughout, as if everyone were overly keen to get their points in (too) early. That’s evident in Mark Henderson’s over-bright lighting and Laura Hopkins’ costume design. She dresses Kate so completely as a creature of fashion — slinky, short dresses and an uberchic bob — that Annabel Scholey has nothing to play. She’s so brittle that it’s impossible to believe she’s Eleanor’s friend, and that upsets the play’s balance.
The outstanding exception in the production is Wanamaker’s Eleanor. It’s the play’s most sympathetic role but thanks to Wanamaker’s quietly upsetting fortitude, the moment in which her “friend” Agnes (Sian Thomas) decides to enlighten her about her husband’s betrayal is truly painful. Her restraint and her character’s tender bewilderment are far more affecting than the overt wrestling of emotions elsewhere, particularly from a miscast Cotton.
For the play to work it needs a quintet of players in ideal balance. These actors aren’t listening to each other enough so audiences largely follow suit. You end up admiring the manner more than the matter in hand.