Having seen and admired the Public Theater’s 1982 production of David Hare’s “Plenty” with its stirring performance by Kate Nelligan, I was eager to see the new staging starring Rachel Weisz, an actress whom I have admired. I just saw her in the film “Denial,” in which she gives an unusual performance as an American professor involved in a lawsuit about a Holocaust denier. In this new “Plenty,” directed by David Leveaux, Weisz burns up the stage with her fevered portrait of Susan Traherne, who goes from a Resistance courier in World War II to a spectacularly disillusioned and emotionally unstable woman as Hare’s stand-in for expressing broader disillusionment in post-war Britain.
Hare’s writing is brilliant and, with the aid of Mike Britton’s stunning panel-shifting scenic design, director Leveaux shifts scenes smoothly between past and present and keeps the look Spartan enough so that the performances always stand out sharply.
We see Susan in France when she is bravely confronting danger and a fighter against the Germans parachutes from the sky with a supply drop. The scene is both a grim reminder of the war and a method of showing Susan’s bravery and the inspiration she derives from such service. That part of her life remains a touchstone, against which is measured the mundane existence that follows, including her involvements with men, especially her marriage to Raymond Brock, a British diplomat effectively played by Corey Stall, a marriage that exudes bitterness for both. It is through the character of the diplomat that we observe Hare’s take on the fading British empire.
Weisz gives a fabulous performance as she falls further and further into emotional trauma, with scenes that can embarrass others and reveal her disturbed psyche. There are many flamboyant moments but also calmer ones in which her comments are pertinent and revealing. Always she is dazzling to look at.
Emily Bergl gives an entertaining performance as Alice Park, Susan’s best friend through thick and thin, who gets by with her offbeat ways and stabs at an artistic life, viewed in one scene by her casually body painting a woman. The rest of the supporting cast also does well.
My impression is that this staging is pumped up from the earlier production I remember as directed by Hare. It seems much more volatile, with Weisz’s performance intensified and more flamboyant than Nelligan’s. But whichever acting one might prefer, the essence of Hare’s play is there with all its striking political undertow. And one should come away with new admiration for Weisz’s range of talent. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-539-8500. Reviewed Oct. 30, 2016.