Simon Jones, Leslie Lyles, and Maureen Andermanin Passion Play(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Simon Jones, Leslie Lyles, and Maureen Anderman
in Passion Play
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
During World War II, then popularly known as The Good War, the British were celebrated by the Allies for their stiff-upper-lip response to the siege. But almost before the next decade was out, the English themselves--as represented by their artists--began to allow that there is a dark and destructive side to stoicism. It was as if they were electing to tell the world that "stiff upper lip" was another way of saying "rigid upper lip," and rigidity is far from a good thing.

Repressed feelings, once so admired, were suddenly excoriated for the toll they take on the psyche. That was why Look Back in Anger revolutionized the English stage with its suggestion that the rage repressed for so long had pushed the cracks in benign national smiles to the breaking point. John Osborne's Jimmy Porter was a seminal character in that he remorselessly expressed what so many people were really thinking and feeling. He the first of the angry young men (and women).

Since 1956, when the ground-breaking Osborne drama shook the walls of the Royal Court, the number of works dealing with the deleterious side-effects of hiding one's actual emotions has swelled. Whereas most English plays used to deal specifically with problems endemic to the class system, either explicitly or implicitly, they tend nowadays to deal with either that deep-seated worry or the inability to get tamped-down feelings to the surface. Class system or repressed feelings, repressed feelings or class system. Sometimes both.

One of the most acclaimed works in the newer genre is Peter Nichols' Passion Play, which in its very title sends up national tendencies to play at passion. Longtime marrieds James (Simon Jones) and Eleanor (Maureen Anderman) are so superficially content with one another that, when initially discovered, they are cosily snuggling on the divan in their upper middle-class living room. They're entertaining Kate (Natacha Roi), a younger woman grieving the loss of Albert, whom all three cherished. Kate's devotion to Albert was the cause of his ending a long marriage, but now she's decided to assuage her loss by putting the moves on the unsuspecting James.

When Kate explains that she really goes for older men to James, who earns his daily bread in art dealing and restoration, he resists only briefly. Eleanor, warned about Kate's predatory ways by Albert's ex-wife Agnes (Lucy Martin), also holds out briefly from believing her ears, but changes her posture when she reads a love letter that Kate had intended for James. Then Jim (John Curless) and Nell (Leslie Lyles) thrust themselves into view. Who are these interlopers dressed in the same clothes that James and Eleanor are wearing? Why, they're the thoughts running through James's and Eleanor's minds but never given air to.

Forget about James's inner child and Eleanor's; these boisterous characters are their inner adults. For the rest of Nichols' award-winning 1982 piece, they struggle to control the blandly complaisant couple in whom they reside. The internal tug-of-war goes back and forth, with Jim and Nell eventually gaining enough independence to begin sporting outfits different from those worn by their outer selves. (The costumes, every one completely right, are by Christine Field.) They harangue and cajole, withdraw and cower as Eleanor confronts James with what she knows. He admits to his transgression and promises to forgo his dalliance, but finds he can't. Ultimately, Eleanor and James reach a conclusion that won't be divulged here, though maybe it isn't too much to note that the compromise deflates Nell and elates Jim. Te questionable bargain allows little hope, as Nichols views it, for his countrymen and -women to shuck fully their inhibitions any time soon.

As Kate continues to dangle herself before James and Nell, with whom she has had a strong friendship, there's no shortage of intense debate between and among these four. (Well, not really between James and Eleanor, who make remarks like "I can't, I'm too inhibited" and "You never said" to indicate the investment they have in maintaining their reserve.) The pros and cons of staying together, of honoring old feelings, of making accommodations, of finding understanding and forgiveness are weighed at great length-- all of these, of course, reflective of the give-and-take in any marriage.

But while James, Jim, Eleanor, and Nell constantly cross each other's paths as if they were cars trying to get around Piccadilly Circus during rush hour, does what they experience add up to fresh and cogent drama? Not really. Nichols has done a fine job of laying in some giveaway details. For instance, while working at home on their careers--Eleanor's occupation isn't as clearly specified as James'--the couple listens to classical music on the stereo. A favorite selection is the St. Matthew Passion, which at one point they switch off with the remote control device. (Just think of the words involved there--"remote," "control," and "device." Those three little words, as distinct from "I love you," have the play's concerns written all over them.) Also, as they try to extricate themselves from their dicey entanglements, James goes about restoring a late Renaissance portrait of Christ wearing a crown of thorns and, later, a cheerful all-yellow canvas that has a smudge on it. Okay, the symbolism is obvious, but it's also fun.

What isn't fun, or ultimately enlightening or suspenseful, is the use of the alter egos. Or maybe Jim and Nell ought to be identified as what they really are: not alter egos but ids. While Nichols has chosen to put egos and ids on stage, he hasn't supplied superegos. Whereas doubled characters are rife in theater pieces now--check out two others items currently on local boards, The Invention of Love and Follies--seeing characters in threes might have been more bracing. This is another way of saying that what may have appeared as bold and confrontational 20 years ago has a slightly stale air about it now. Where once it may have seemed revealing, it now seems only raucous, tedious, attenuated.

Elinor Renfield's slick production only goes so far to undercut the déja vu quality of the play, which is exacerbated by the fact that--in a case of unfortunate timing--Passion Play arrives when betrayal among spliced English folk has been covered this past year in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing and Harold Pinter's Betrayal. (Holy moley, all these members of the Brit intelligentsia stumbling through attempts to conserve the old facade!) Renfield is certainly aided by Narelle Sissons's set, the three most prominent elements of which are the walls of the James-Eleanor abode. They're detached walls bound in gold frames, yet another play on the contained passion in Nichols's dialogue. Behind these walls are even more canvases, lying this way and that. And Ken Davis's sound design, with the music of those evocative composers filling the charged air, is another plus.

As James and Nell, Jones and Anderman look comfortable with each other and initially confident about their commitments. They give the kind of appealingly felt performances they always do. Curless and Lyles as Jim and Nell have a more difficult time of it, almost they've taken their assignments to play unbridled natures as licenses to overact. There must be a balance between liberation and louche, but if there is, this pair hasn't quite found it under Renfield's guidance. Natacha Roi as Kate, who's so fully integrated in her man-stalking that she doesn't need an alter ego prodding her, does sangfroid with lithe and sexy skill. When she's being pawed by the relentlessly licentious Jim, her ability to act as if this is all in a day's work and therefore hardly worth noting is wonderful to behold. Lucy Martin is fine in the smaller role of the embittered, vengeful Agnes, as are Peter Bradbury, Cynthia Hood, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Claywood Sempliner as various friend, waiters, and factotums.

Marriage is a confounding state. And, although Nichols examines its challenges here with a certain degree of understanding, he doesn't really bring much new to the troubled dining-room table.