Stockard Channing and Jane Alexander
in The Breath of Life
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Stockard Channing and Jane Alexander
in The Breath of Life
(© T. Charles Erickson)
When actresses the caliber of Jane Alexander and Stockard Channing agree to appear in a previously-unproduced-in-Manhattan David Hare play, theatergoers' pulses quicken. But while The Breath of Life, now at the Westport Country Playhouse, offers both Tony Award winners ample opportunities to charge their whiz-bang batteries and keep ticket-buyer's hearts aflutter, the raw material, even as deftly directed by Mark Lamos, is far from the brightest feather in the prolific Hare's cap.

Channing is Frances Beale, a successful popular novelist, who's cruised over to the Isle of Wight for a visit with Madeleine Palmer (played by Alexander). Frances' reason for the drop-by is that she's about to write a book about herself and her philandering husband, Martin. Madeleine, whose field is Islamic art, happens to be someone with whom Martin cheated -- and who is now being cheated on by Martin with a younger Seattle-based American woman.

Over the course of 24 hours -- extended because Madeleine misses the late afternoon boat to the mainland -- Frances and Madeleine talk, circling each other on Michael Yeargan's homey, cluttered Islamic-art-influenced set like boxers deciding when to throw the first meaningful punch. During the attenuated colloquy, they exchange reminiscences of their separate experiences with Martin as well as share confidences about their deprived, paradoxically liberated lives without the two-timing gent.

There's something to be said for the tentative solace they eventually offer each other, but there isn't a great deal to be lauded for what amounts to the absence of a meaningful confrontation -- or even for a satisfying explanation why Frances has sought the meeting. She mentions writing the Frances-Martin story as memoir rather than fiction, which, incidentally, is a literary genre Madeleine disrespects. But whether she even means to incorporate Madeleine in her book is an issue that goes unexplored, let alone exploited for stage fireworks.

Hare hands the smart and articulate characters (originally played by Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in London) any number of good lines, the tangiest of which go to Madeleine. She also confesses she was completely in love with Martin, but, on the dialogue's evidence, his treatment of her left wounds somehow more easily healed. The role of Frances comes off as the weightier half of the seesaw. The betrayed wife and mother is profoundly tormented by having been betrayed at such length, and Channing, hair pulled back and hanging past her shoulders, misses no chance to convey the pain Frances endures.