Mike Bartlett’s “An Intervention” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, closing August 23

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Justin Long and Josh Hamilton in An Intervention. Photo T Charles Erickson.
Justin Long and Josh Hamilton in An Intervention. Photo T Charles Erickson.

British playwright Mike Bartlett’s fast-paced short play, An Intervention, closes with a black slapstick routine worthy of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. In the final scene, Character A, as she/he is called, brings out a ladder. Since we know A to be a troubled alcoholic, the conclusion we are meant to draw is obvious. A mounts the ladder experimentally, then retreats. Character B arrives. A scene ensues. A, fortified by tequila chugged straight from the bottle, mounts the ladder again. Lights flash in our faces, and a noose appears from nowhere. A puts it round her/his neck. B, remorseful, tries to stop his friend. The ladder topples and B is left holding A by the legs—a balancing act standing between A and death. The play closes as B sets his far-fetched and not-very-promising solution, A realizes that there will be no solution to his drinking problem, and the two reaffirm their mutual love, which has been so severely bruised over the past 45 minutes.

This amusing shtick points to some key issues in the show. The comic faux-suicide and the ridiculous rescue are old devices. Rather more tired out is playing a flamboyant, flawed, immediately entertaining character against a straight, or stooge, a person of moderation, common sense, and ordinary practicality. The first is easier to bring off than the second, perhaps, but let’s say that both are evergreens in the right hands. In any case, many of the best things in theater are the old ones. Mike Bartlett is a hot item in London these days from all the rave reviews, excitement and controversy that has arisen from his King Charles III—a political fantasy puffed around the possible accession of Prince of Wales. (Broadway audiences can look forward to seeing it in October.) He seems to handle his theatrical plasticene pretty effectively in An Intervention, but the actual effect depends rather a lot from the execution…no pun intended. For its American premiere, the Williamstown Theatre Festival has chosen to present the show with two casts—Cast One consisting of Josh Hamilton (A) and Justin Long (B) and Cast Two of Betty Gilpin (A) and Debargo Sanyal (B). The London premiere featured a female and a male, but Bartlett specifies that “the two characters must be quick and clever but can be played by actors of any age, gender or ethnicity.” Since the play is only 45 minutes long, one can easily see both casts and still get into a pub before closing. (Excuse me, that doesn’t apply here or anywhere any more, does it?) I recommend seeing one of these double-headers, as I did, although one cast is successful and the other, unfortunately, not. The hanging scene I have already mentioned, for example, is suspenseful and funny in one and falls flat in the other.

The intervention of the title is not an alcoholic intervention, as one might have assumed. It is rather the British government’s intervention in some unnamed Middle Eastern country. This action is implemented, continues, and escalates through the course of the play. It enters A and B’s lives through the television. In the beginning, when A and B meet for an evening together in A’s flat, we see that their friendship has already reached a point where they get on each others’ nerves quite a bit. This is immediately exacerbated by B’s support for the intervention, which upsets A considerably. They continue to discuss it with some passion, but their relationship revolves more around the emotional baggage they have created between them, above all B’s growing involvement with a woman called Hannah, who offers B comfort, simplicity, and happiness. She makes him feel good, while A makes him feel bad. Apart from his/her jealousy, A sincerely dislikes Hannah, harboring plenty of reasons to consider her stupid and disagreeable. Facebook provides a forum for their mutual antipathy, with her posting photos of his drunken behavior at parties, and him exchanging spiteful messages with mutual friends. According to A, none of B’s friends like her. Hannah has in fact told B that he shouldn’t be seeing A. Since he makes B feel so bad, B has been avoiding him anyway. As their relationship deteriorates, A outs B’s support of the intervention among B’s friends and colleagues, much to their displeasure. A quits his teaching job. Eventually Hannah becomes pregnant, and B moves in with her to raise their incipient family. However, B spends more and more time watching the intervention on television. Hannah disapproves of him exposing the baby to its violence, and they have a row, including B’s counter-recriminations re her fondness for horror movies. She tells him to leave, refuses to allow him contact with their daughter, and tells him that she has been tired of him for some time and has been seeing another man. B is miserable as he walks in on A and his ladder. At first A tells B that he is doing well, has sobered up, and is applying for work. B vents his misery, whereupon A suddenly disappears, to reemerge with a bottle of tequila, fortifying himself for his homemade scaffold. A had wanted B to find him hanging when he entered his apartment, but B arrived too early, spoiling the effect. This is how B ended up hanging from a rope with B’s arms around his legs. If B lets go to call for help, A will die. However, B can reach the remote control with his foot. He turns on the news about the intervention, with its exploding bombs, shooting, and shouting. His hope is that the noise, if turned up to maximum volume, will annoy a neighbor to the point of calling the police or at least knocking on the door. The fighting has steadied their nerves, as they face their ordeal, their friendship restored.

Friendship, classically a central topic in philosophy, literature, and drama from ancient Greece to the Renaissance, has been out of favor for some time. Some have assumed that their has been a sexual relationship between A and B, but that is not supported by the script. Their relationship is a “platonic” one. I think of C. S. Lewis’ definition in his memoirs, Surprised by Joy. One’s first best friend is a person one agrees with about nearly everything, and one’s second best friend is a person with whom one disagrees about nearly everything. A and B fall into the second category at best, and they are brought down by further imperfections. A doesn’t have too much respect for B’s intellect, while B appreciates the invigorating qualities of his abrasive, drunken friend. Bartlett’s outlook in the play is largely positive. It is an affirmation of friendship…inasmuch as it can be survived. That is what the play is about, not war, not booze, not modern, socially networked relationships. Military interventions may seem what is really happening in the world, since wars are decided by people in power, cost a vast sums of money, mobilize many people, and put them in a situation of life and death. But here, it is only a background to the real battle among ordinary people trying to live, or to find some reason or reward for doing so.

Of course there is in fact a political dimension to the play, and, given the tenor on Mike Bartlett’s other work, one shouldn’t be surprised at that. Given the grousing about Tony Blair, A’s strong feelings against the intervention and B’s considered, warmish but not lukewarm support of it—a conflict played out in pubs and in A’s flat, which we assume to be shabby, although, as we learn at the end, handsomely equipped with a serious home theater, including a “massive subwoofer,” we can draw out own conclusions about the political life of this engaged, but increasingly reclusive drunk.

The Williamstown Theatre Festival presented the play against a handsome curved wooden backdrop with two or three spaces for exits and entrances and a Islamic sort of pattern. It would handsomely adorn any business class (ergo not VIP) lounge in Abu Dhabi or Dubai. (For more about this important cultural phenomenon, see my interview with Danish  superstarchitect Jefe Anglesdottir.) Mike Bartlett actually called for a plain curtains — “like Morecambe and Wise, or Abbott and Costello. Only the bare minimum is brought on for each scene.” I think is is unfortunate that WTF’s topical indulgence deprived them of the simple a curtain, a universalizing metaphor which turns these British everypersons into comedians of a basic, bread and butter sort. Josh Hamilton’s brilliant performance as A made the Cast One version a scintillating rush of mental and emotional broken glasses and bottles, fueled by alcohol and adrenalin. As B, Justin Long, who has already had a chance to pull out all his stops in Legacy, was a decent enough fellow looking for a stable, happy family life. He was something more than a mere stooge. The great virtue of their work was that they actually created characters, to whom we could respond to as human beings.

Betty Gilpin and Debargo Sanyal in An Intervention. Photo T. Charles Erickson.
Betty Gilpin and Debargo Sanyal in An Intervention. Photo T. Charles Erickson.

Betty Gilpin and Debargo Sanyal, on the other hand, could not achieve this basic actorly task in their performances as Cast B. Gilpin seemed mostly interested in the gestures and sounds she could make on stage, mostly jerky movements and shrieks—nothing that would distract us (or her) from her effortful presence on the stage and excite our curiosity about A, much less that empathetic illusion one hopes for. She repeatedly knotted her body into odd contortions, which, far from expressing anguish of soul or drunkenness, seemed more like some demented variety of yoga. Debargo Sanyal is the master of a narrow range of pouts and grimaces which communicated little more than the fact that he was displeased and worried about his friend’s behavior. He also indulged in stylized movements and little dances, but he seemed infected by his partner’s energy. The result was a fidgety, directionless act—something far short of a play—which recalled what passes for experimental theater in certain small spaces in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, but lacked the skill and humor that sometimes surface in the melee.

Not that Cast One was perfect. They rushed on a bit too much, and if they had varied their tempo and paused in places a little more, they might have been even more funny and brought out more of Bartlett’s script. Cast One’s English accents were excellent, while Cast Two’s were unconvincing, as if the two actors had just emerged from a speech class. Over about four sentences Sanyal gave us a tour of England’s entire class structure, from the East End to Eton. Bearing in mind Ali G’s geography of Britain, that could be an act in itself! I found myself wishing that Cast Two had taken up an Americanized version, for which some rewriting would have been necessary. It seemed incredible that both versions had been developed under the same director, Lila Neugebauer, who would have done well to restrain Cast Two’s St. Vitus dance.

All this notwithstanding, see both casts, if you can, for a strong lesson in the art of acting, but don’t miss Cast One, if that’s all you can do.

Williamstown Theatre Festival
August 12-23, 2015
An Intervention
by Mike Bartlett
Director – Lila Neugebauer
Scenic Designer – Laura Jellinek
Costume Designer – Kaye Voyce
Lighting Designer – Ben Stanton
Sound Designer – Brandon Wolcott
Fight Director – Thomas Schall
Stage Manager – Steve Milosevich
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