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When Peter Hall mounted his production of Harley Granville Barker's Waste at the Old Vic two years ago, he said the work was "to me, the most perceptive play about politics since Shakespeare." There will be only slight argument from this quarter: The drama, written and promptly banned by the Lord Chamberlain in 1907, may have more relevance to today's theater goers than even the Bard's shrewdest tragedies and histories. In other words, at this moment in parlous times Hall's comments could be altered to read, "Waste is the most perceptive play about politics ever."

In Granville Barker's masterwork, Amy O'Connell--pregnant as a result of an extra marital dalliance with the independent politician Henry Trebell--declares to him her intention to have an abortion, vehemently insisting, "I've a right to choose." Doing so, she embodies a personal and societal dilemma no closer to resolution today than it was almost 100 years ago when the first production of Waste, which had to be presented at a private club, was performed, and the London Times critic weighed in with: "The subject matter of Waste, together with the sincere realism with which it is treated, makes it, in our judgment, wholly unfit for performance under ordinary conditions before a miscellaneous public of various ages, moods and standards of intelligence."

Ostensibly it was the mention of abortion that brought the Lord Chamberlain's condemnation--his order included the phrases "a criminal operation" and "extremely outspoken reference to sexual relations" --but the commonly-held interpretation was that Granville Barker's expose of political cynicism and machination would have opened both Tories and Liberals to embarrassment, and that could not be allowed.

But whereas Waste has been appreciated--and shamelessly deprecated--as a troubling play about politics, it should also be seen as a troubling play about sexual politics. Yes, there are a series of scenes in it depicting insinuating behind-the-scenes deals and accommodations among powerful men, but there are also sequences in which the drawing-room power of women--constrained, of course, and thus sleek evidence of repression--is also put into play (pun intended).
It's an extreme pleasure to report that Granville Barker's intentions are realized with clarity and high style in Bartlett Sher's American premiere production. Which, not incidentally, is the version Granville Barker executed in 1926, when he kept the play's structure but apparently changed every line of his original dialogue. (Not that his revision helped him get a production up before "a miscellaneous public" before 1936 in England or--good heavens--2000 in America. Well, Granville Barker, who also acted and directed, hasn't been made much of on these shores for quite some time--until this winter, when there has also just been the Mint Theater Company's rattling-good display of The Voysey Inheritance.

The plot of Waste involves the above-mentioned Henry Trebell, who's been working on a headline-grabbing bill involving disestablishment of the Church of England. His activities are, as it happens, of interest to Tories looking to unseat the ruling Liberal party in an upcoming election. (This plot point may be a little fuzzy for stateside ticket-buyers.) Cyril Horsham, who heads the shadow government with a politico's iron fist in an gentlemen's evening glove, regards Trebell's bill as just the ticket to further his ticket. He has silenced the objections of pragmatists with whom he's attached and is about to bring Trebell aboard when the news breaks behind closed doors about Amy O'Connell's having had an abortion that caused her death.

Reluctantly but with the harsh finality frequently an element of realpolitik, he sends Trebell a polite, dismissive note. For Horsham the development means forfeiting the likelihood of a reform in which he actually believes; for Trebell it means the ruin of a carefully constructed career; for Amy O'Connell, it means, of course, far worse. Hence Granville Barker's devastating title: Waste.

The glimpses into mounting tragedy that Granville Barker provides begin in the home of George and Julia Farrant and proceed to the office Trebell keeps in his home and on to Horsham's cigars-and-whiskey lair. As scene follows scene, the playwright subtly demonstrates how the atmosphere in which women are allowed--even expected--to sparkle gives way to the more potent areas in which men wield their absolute influence. In the Amy O'Connell-Trebell encounters, which start at the Farrant's but move to Trebell's, she intrudes on his domains symbolically as well as physically, and she's punished for the affront.

But not before she and the rest of Granville Barker's dramatis personae utter copious quotable--and revealing--lines. "I have never spoken in public, and I never shall," Julia Farrant says, pin pointing the place in which a leading socialite was meant to fit herself. Under Lady Julia's hospitable auspices another of the well-born says about men, "You've got to fool them, or they'll fool you." Later, someone remarks--and always remember, Granville Barker was a leading Shaw disciple--"The road to hell is paved less with good intentions than with high ideals."
To speak the polished, if condemning, repartee, director Sher has commandeered a first-rate cast, every one of whom knows how to sit upright in a chair without committing that etiquette no-no: leaning against its back. Byron Jennings has the patrician looks and passion. Playing a character whose tragic flaw is that he cares more about public relations than interpersonal ones, he gets properly heated up when espousing the glories of his bill. In the love scene where he lets down his guard and declares his infatuation with Amy O'Connell, however, he might give freer rein to amorousness--that strain in Trebell seems stronger than Jennings suggests.

As Trebell's love interest, Kristin Flanders misses no nuance. Amy O'Connell has married brilliantly but still feels like an outsider, and Flanders captures those too-gay, then too-flustered impulses. Ross Bickell's Horsham is confident and lubricious, qualities captured on the distaff side in Pamela Nyberg's Julia. Of the impeccable others, Jordan Charney, arms a-flail, as a bombastic official, shines, and the always-reliable Henry Stram makes the most of a physician concerned about government ins-and-outs. They prove, as do their colleagues, that there are no small parts, particularly in a play where there are no small lines.

The cast is sartorially smart right down to their pumps in Martin Pakledinaz's Edwardian wardrobe. But his--and presumably Sher's--decision to dress the players in that period raises doubts about John Arnone's set, which consists most prominently of three large white windowed walls that are repeatedly reconfigured and hint at a certain lightness not endemic to the text. Since Granville Barker updated his 1907 script to include references to Sinn Fein and the Russian and Chinese revolutions, the exact time in which the play takes place is blurry. The result on the American Place stage is that the costumes seem to suit one era and the set another.

It's an odd dichotomy but hardly a damaging one--far from it. Not when Martin Tisdale, beautifully playing Trebell's devoted aide, cries out at the drama's close, "Oh, the waste of him...oh, the waste...the waste!" It's a transcendent moment at which the brutal reality a playwright is observing is made emotionally moving art by the genius with which he observes it. In two words: Waste lands.

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