A Revival for a Playwright Who's Funny and Upsetting

By BEN BRANTLEY (thanks Gina and Magic for the pic)

You have been asked, for the moment, to see the man on the stage in London through the eyes of an itchy, sullen schoolboy. He is your teacher, and he seems like a major jerk. He is hostile, impatient, unfair and uncomfortable. Not so different, come to think about it, from the students he is dressing down.

You can't help resenting this man, found in the smashing recent revival of "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" by Peter Nichols, as he stands in front of a giant chalkboard, hurling teacherly abuse into the audience. At the same time, you can't help identifying with him. Somehow you've already been implicated in everything that's going to follow, which will be both very funny and very upsetting.

So goes the opening scene in the vibrant production that closed at the Comedy Theater on Sunday, starring the stand-up comic Eddie Izzard in a role he was born to play. The curtain raiser is a classic declaration of intent from Mr. Nichols. He is going mano a mano with theatergoers, and he isn't letting anyone off easy: his characters, his audience or himself.

In his mid-70's, Peter Nichols feels like the freshest thing on the boards in the London theater. The recent production of "Joe Egg" (from 1967) has been matched by an equally juicy revival of "Privates on Parade," the 1977 musical by Mr. Nichols and the composer Denis King about a touring military entertainment troupe in Singapore and Malaya in 1948. Like most of what Mr. Nichols writes, it keeps you squirming with both pleasure and unease.

"Privates" has been delivered by the same company, the Donmar Warehouse, and director, Michael Grandage, that gave London the searing reincarnation in 2000 of Mr. Nichols's "Passion Play" (1981). The production was the first Mr. Nichols had had in the West End since 1987.

There are immense pleasures to be had from the rediscovery of Mr. Nichols, who is experiencing the kind of overdue renaissance that is being accorded his American contemporary Edward Albee on the other side of the Atlantic. Mr. Nichols never achieved the flashy international presence of English playwrights like Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard.

He has neither man's glamorous personal profile. Nor does his voice have the easily identified (and parodied) stylistic trademarks of Mr. Pinter's working-class ellipses or Mr. Stoppard's intellectual curlicues. Yet the past several seasons have confirmed spectacularly that Mr. Nichols does indeed belong to their ranks as an individualist and a subversive.

It may have been the subject matter of "Joe Egg" — a couple's ambivalent relationship with their spastic child — that generated interest and alarm. But 30 years on, it is the form of Mr. Nichols's plays that electrifies far more than the content does. It's not literature that Mr. Nichols is presenting; it's not cinema. What he creates for the stage are only and transcendentally plays.

Mr. Nichols has written that he has consistently tried to shatter the "two-way mirror" between a play and its audience. He consciously draws attention to his works' artificiality only to dig more deeply under the skins of his subjects.

The theater, he suggests, has as vital and irreplaceable a set of diagnostic tools as any scientific discipline. And he uses them with illuminating precision and a softening, bottomless empathy to examine bad faith, both personal and historical, in the 20th century.

In "Passion Play" he dissected the role of adultery by giving onstage alter egos to a husband and wife and setting off their conflicts with the music of Bach and Mozart. In "The National Health" (1969) he contrasted the harrowing absurdities of a modern hospital ward with the contrivances of a pulp romance novel about doctors in love.

"Joe Egg," disarmingly directed by Laurence Boswell, uses the thrust-and- parry of music-hall sketch comedy to show how a withering young schoolteacher and his wife deal with their daughter's disability. Casting Mr. Izzard as Bri, the perpetually adolescent teacher, was inspired.

Best known for his cross-dressing one-man shows, this confrontational performer arrived with the instinctive awareness of an audience that the part requires. But he also lets you see how this comic posture is for Bri an acquired character trait, a means of accommodating an unpleasant reality and, not incidentally, of feeding a hunger for attention.

That's the way the play works, too, framing pathos with a joke-driven structure that keeps pointing out its own limitations. This was underscored beautifully not only by Mr. Izzard's performance but also by that of Victoria Hamilton, the stunningly natural young actress who played Sheila, Bri's nurturing, endlessly compassionate wife.

Sheila enters gamely into Bri's vaudevillian routines, which portray their early encounters with the unhelpful medical specialists who first let them know that their child is, in the crude parlance of one of them, "a wegetable." The routines are simply and ingeniously performed, as if backstage, before the reversed side of the set showing the couple's home.

Though adhering closely to the script, Mr. Izzard and Ms. Hamilton created a genuine sense of improvisation, of an adaptable reality-shaping game equally rooted in affection, exasperation and, in Bri's case, cosmic terror. It is one of the best realizations ever of the intimate, arcane and imperfect dialogue that develops between partners in marriage.

On the surface, "Privates on Parade," which was inspired by Mr. Nichols's own military service, is less original. Weaving song-and- dance routines into a comment on the waning days of empire, it immediately brings to mind the ironic musical pastiches of Joan Littlewood's "Oh What a Lovely War."

Under Mr. Grandage's direction, however, "Privates" emerges as a warmer, less didactic work than its original critics thought, even though Mr. Nichols has revised the play to come down harder on his callow hero. The soldiers who make up the Singapore-based Song and Dance Unit of Southeast Asia now come across as both archetypes and fully textured characters.

They memorably include the troupe's leader and drag-wearing leading lady, the flaming Acting Capt. Terri Dennis (Roger Allam), and the short-sighted, grandiloquent Maj. Giles Flack (Malcolm Sinclair), emblem of a vanishing old guard of piety, politeness and patriotism.

Mr. Allam and Mr. Flack are both first-rate, finding a baffled poignancy at their characters' cores while giving full due to their cartoonish surfaces. James McAvoy is spot-on as the Candide-like private (who, like Bri in "Joe Egg," is clearly the author's stand-in), as is Indira Varma as the Anglo-Indian (and Anglophile) actress who introduces him to sex.

Mr. King's songs are consciously and artfully imitative — of NoŽl Coward, of Gilbert and Sullivan, of MGM musicals. But as performed by the Donmar cast, with hilarious choreography by Scarlett Mackmin, they comment specifically and tellingly on both a moment in history and the individuals caught up in it. The troupe's traveling revue is, like the cabaret of "Cabaret," a prism for an entire world.

The show also evokes the peculiar solace afforded by a sentimental or silly song in times of crisis, wallowing happily in the styles it sends up. Like the sick jokes of "Joe Egg," the musical hall production numbers and sketches summon the fictions and fantasies everyone uses to muddle through the dark.

A character in "Joe Egg" speaks of what he calls "the fallacy of the sick joke": "It kills the pain but leaves the situation just as it was." Mr. Nichols's extraordinary achievement as a playwright is to use such narcotic devices to bring out the pain and pathos they are meant to conceal.

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