Simon Dutton and Sophie Ward in Nothing
photo © Richard Campbell)
Simon Dutton and Sophie Ward in Nothing
photo © Richard Campbell)
The writer Henry Green, who died in 1973, was much applauded during his lifetime, championed by such fellow writers as John Updike and Eudora Welty. Among his more recent champions was Brooke Allen, who wrote in a 1993 issue of Criterion, that the author's "last, great" novels, Doting and Nothing are "dismally underrated." Hopefully, a similar fate won't befall the play version of Nothing, which was adapted for the stage by the actor Andrea Hart, and is now being seen here as part of the annual Brits Off-Broadway Festival.

"Sharp and hard," as another writer once called Green's work, certainly applies to this play, as do words like incisive, wry, intelligent, probing, disturbing, and damning. Originally directed for Glasgow's Citizen Theatre by Robert David MacDonald, the production has been smartly re-directed and redesigned by Philip Prowse. (MacDonald died not too shortly after he'd mounted Nothing.)

Nothing focuses on Jane Wetherby (Sophie Ward) and John Pomfret (Simon Dutton), former lovers whose children, Mary Pomfret (Candida Benson) and Philip Wetherby (Pete Ashmore) are threatening to marry. Jane, for reasons that may include her thinking Mary is too unattractive for Philip, doesn't like the prospects of such a marriage. Self-absorbed and self-serving as she is, Jane sets about undermining the impending nuptials. Her tactics include underhandedly perpetuating the rumor that Philip's father could be John. Whether or not he is never becomes clear to John, who wants the best for his daughter -- but also retains a quiet passion for Jane. Jane's motives are suspected, however, by Liz Jennings (Andrea Hart) -- but not questioned by Richard Abbot (Derwent Watson), a rotund gentleman with designs on any woman who'll invite him back for a drink.

One reason Hart may have been attracted to Green's novel is that it consists almost entirely of dialogue. Green tells his tale through a series of tart conversations taking place in a post-World War II London that doesn't seem as impoverished as was often reported. These pampered figures are the high-bourgeoisie-English sort that Noel Coward often reveled in. For his part, Green was ingenious at mixing and matching his characters in pithy one-on-one encounters. Hart hasn't altered this scheme -- one that ultimately suggests something about parent-child relaionships that doesn't, to say the least, reaffirm the often-vaunted maternal instinct. She has also retained innumerable cryptically hilarious remarks as well as what could be called a running gag about an unseen friend whose gangrene is growing progressively worse. (The gag is a metaphor for the creeping spiritual poison Green detected in the England he knew.)

Prowse makes sure Green's spiritedly dispirited chat flows by moving the actors surely back and forth to the little tables, long sofa, and upstage telephones he's placed on his black set with only the occasional burgundy cushion to give the look a posh touch. (On an upstage wall he's hung a row of black homburgs and furled black umbrellas; costume designer Jane Hamilton has the women in suits with peplums and the men in solemn pin-stripe outfits.)

The cast, all of whom are Citizens Theatre veterans, approach the play as to their manners born. With irony that Green would undoubtedly have admired, they bring depth to these woefully shallow creatures. Ward, tall and slim and forever fingering her tasteful necklace, makes Jane a drawing-room comedy heroine who's suddenly had the gears shifted on her. Dutton makes John an example of suavity with little underpinning. Ashmore makes Phillip's callowness occasionally likable, and Benson, as sympathetic Mary, is completely convincing. Meanhwile, Hart, in a 1950s snood, snipes properly as Liz, Watson has the amusing leers Richard Abbot needs, and Tristram Wymark cutely plays a tipsy waiter. Thanks in large part to the fine cast, Nothing is truly quite something.