I first came to know Alan Bennett as a member of “Beyond the Fringe”, the smash 1960 comedy revue that revolutionized British satire. Back then, Bennett was the forgotten Fringe member, ceding the spotlight to Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller. Yet, as the years passed, Bennett has achieved his share of fame as a playwright, screenwriter and author. He even enjoys the status as one of England’s “national treasures.”
His name is not well-known outside Britain or theater circles but, in recent years, he has enjoyed great success with two plays, “The Madness of George III” (1992) and “The History Boys” (2006), both of which were made into films. And a British Film Institute biography calls several of his television scripts “amongst British television’s greatest achievements.”
Watching his television and Broadway plays, I admire his compassion for downtrodden or unfortunate characters who often fail to connect with others, particularly in intimate relationships. I think the BFI profile gets it right when it commends “his ability to get under the skin of such withdrawn people and write about them with such empathy, compassion and wry (often gallows) humor (that) makes him not just a great writer but the definitive chronicler of a certain kind of English ordinariness, whose outwardly placid surface conceals inner turmoil.”
I thus went with high expectations on Tuesday evening to see his latest play, “People,” which premiered at London’s National Theatre last October and has been a big hit, prompting TNL to film a live performance for screening internationally under the National Theatre Live banner. Locally, TNL productions began screening at The Music Box Theater in 2011 with Danny Boyle’s adaptation of “Frankenstein”.
TNL’s ambitious plan closely resembles the successful effort of The Metropolitan Opera’s theater telecasts. For this production, Bennett was reunited with his “History Boys” director and National Theatre head, Nicholas Hytner.
The play opens in the living room of a crumbling South Yorkshire country estate stacked high with furnishings under wraps and a bath on top of the billiard table. Dorothy Stacpoole (the delightful Frances de la Tour) and her companion, Iris (Linda Bassett) are facing a tough decision. Dorothy’s archdeacon sister, June, wants to hand the estate over to the National Trust to manage but Dorothy finds the idea distasteful. She abhors all the people traipsing through the house on a National Trust tour, something to be avoided at all costs. “People spoil things,” she says. That reminded me of the famous line by Jean Paul Sartre, “Hell is other people.” But what is she to do?
I wish I had a better report to deliver. However, I found the action plodding, the dialogue lacking punch and the wit too British for my taste. Things do pick up in Act Two but the story had lost me by then. The English harbor a fondness for such drawing room comedy. Yet, for me, this genre just doesn’t travel well. Readers may feel differently, given the tremendous popularity of British fare aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater.
“People” will be shown again at the Music Box this Sunday, April 28, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance at the theater’s box office, $18 at the door and online at www.musicboxtheatre.com/events/people (click Special Events).
However, I still plan to be in the audience for the NTL’s next two presentations: a political thriller, “This House,” which enjoyed two sold-out runs at the National, on May 16 and Helen Mirren in “The Audience,” once more portraying QE II on June 13.