The death of idealism usually signals the end of an era, a brutal message lyrically delivered by David Hare in his 1982 drama, “Plenty,” now in a rare revival at the Public Theater. Rachel Weisz is by turns steely and fragile as the brave Resistance heroine who survives the dangers and deprivations of World War II, but is crushed by the complacency and materialistic greed of the post-war era. Although the play’s original impact has been blunted with time, this slick revival directed by David Leveaux respects the historical moment.
Susan Traherne (Weisz) is one of those people who only feels alive when she’s in danger. That serves this Englishwoman well when, at the age of 17, she becomes a courier helping the French Resistance behind German lines. Susan has what the British call “a good war,” but she finds that her heroic values have no place in the materialistic context of the postwar years.
Drifting from one unsatisfying job to another — whatever made her think she might be cut out for a career in advertising? — she grows increasingly brittle and cynical. Intolerant of her less committed friends and downright cruel to her loving husband, a Foreign Service official played with great kindness by Corey Stoll, she goes quietly mad in the grand manner of an Ibsen heroine.
Weisz has a sweet quality that lends poignancy to the idealistic heroine’s bitter disillusionment with the cold realities of the modern age. She’s out of her depth, though, in the scenes that show Susan struggling to maintain her mental equilibrium within her social set. The diplomatic party at which Susan has her public meltdown is smartly staged, but the actress seems overwhelmed in this company. The end of this fragmented play, when
Susan relives the moment when she was most alive, unkindly reminds us of the initial promise of the performance.
Leveaux’s strong production features solid supporting actors like the invaluable Byron Jennings as a prissy civil servant in the stuffy diplomatic circles where Susan feels stifled. The play’s dark moods are also reflected in the high quality of the design elements. Mike Britton is responsible for the severe sets, which are a study in the selfish values of the era, and David Weiner did the unforgiving lighting, which reflect the growing darkness of Susan’s troubled mind.