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London Calling

How David Hare took Broadway.

On Broadway, where distinguished American writers complain that it’s nearly impossible to get their plays produced, the British dramatist David Hare has opened no fewer than four in the past 12 months. Last spring, Hare’s play about Oscar Wilde, The Judas Kiss, came from London. It was followed this winter by his adaptation The Blue Room, which made the cover of Newsweek on the backside, as it were, of Nicole Kidman. At the moment, Hare occupies two stages in New York. Amy’s View, starring Judi Dench, is playing to full houses at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, while Hare himself is performing a monologue about Israel, Via Dolorosa, at the Booth Theatre.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that American audiences have a taste for British drama. Stage envy is a well-trod Anglophilic path, which has in the last few years widened into a mostly one-way superhighway stretching from London’s West End to the New York Theater District. Current productions that have breezed down it include The Weir, by the young Irish playwright Conor McPherson, and Closer, by Patrick Marber. Lately, we Americans even seem more interested in our own playwrights when we see them reflected back at us by the Brits. Revivals of Tennessee Williams’ early work Not About Nightingales and Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, starring Kevin Spacey, are both English imports. In a recent discussion in the Sunday “Arts & Leisure” section, three New York Times drama critics discussed this phenomenon. Basically, they all concluded that British is better.

But Hare, who now dominates Broadway in a way Tom Stoppard never has, may illustrate a somewhat different phenomenon. There is, of course, an element of Anglomania in his success here. But I think it may also speak to something more interesting. Hare feeds an appetite for a theater engaged with society, which our domestic dramatic economy isn’t satisfying at the moment. He is in almost every way an old-fashioned playwright, who uses dramatic form to amplify questions of politics, religion, society, and relations between the sexes. And while I think that even Hare’s best work falls short of greatness, the combination of his seriousness and his success bode well for theater as a form on both sides of the Atlantic.

Hare’s early work has the reputation for being left-wing agitprop. In fact, while less skillful than his later efforts, his early plays are not mere polemics. Hare’s first produced play, Slag (1970), is a kind of dystopian fantasy about radical feminism, in which the attempt to run a girls’ school dissolves into absurd infighting. It is true that the author’s Labor Party socialism originally took the not-very-novel form of negative portrayals of establishment institutions and the residue of British imperialism. But what soon began to distinguish him from a lot of his like-minded contemporaries were a low-key wit and an ability to write memorable roles for women. Hare’s first play to open at the National Theatre in London in 1978 (and currently being revived there) was Plenty, later made into a film with Meryl Streep. Streep plays the role of Susan Traherne, a woman who works undercover in France during World War II and subsequently finds herself unable to cope with postwar British life. Despite her craziness, we see that she has a point.

His radicalism mellowed with time and success. Where once he proposed a debate between between socialism and capitalism, between the Third World and the First as in Map of the World (1983), Hare’s later plays posit a subtler conflict over personal and political values. The first time he really demonstrated this maturity was in The Secret Rapture (1988), a work Hare himself has pointed to as an important departure. It’s about two sisters who have to deal with the messy legacy of their departed father. One is generous and impractical. The other is ruthless and self-interested in a Thatcherite vein but nonetheless sympathetic in the end. Frank Rich, then the lead drama critic for the New York Times, who liked the play when it debuted in London, wrote a harsh review of the New York production and especially of the performance by the author’s then-girlfriend Blair Brown. An embittered Hare pledged not to bring another play to New York until Rich stopped reviewing.

In following years, Hare became more interested in the soul of Britain under Thatcherism. In the early 1990s, he wrote a trilogy of “State of the Nation” plays: Racing Demon, about the Church of England, Murmuring Judges, about the legal system, and The Absence of War, about the Labor Party. All opened to acclaim at the National Theatre and provoked national debate in Britain. Racing Demon, a play about Anglican priests, even came to New York once Rich moved on. Why, you have to ask, is it so seldom that important-seeming American plays address societal issues such as these? You might start with the fact that the United States, unlike Britain, has no centralized national theater, either literally or figuratively. What occurs on the New York stage doesn’t resonate around the country, or even down the Amtrak corridor to Washington. And you might add that the political interests of American playwrights tend to revolve more around issues of identity and less around national institutions.

We also have a different kind of theatrical tradition, which is less talky and intellectualized than the British one. The playwright whom Hare harks back to most directly is George Bernard Shaw. Though his wit is not of Shavian sharpness, his plays are in another sense more sophisticated. Where Shaw’s characters tend to represent views pitted against each other, Hare’s cannot resist becoming genuine characters–contradictory, quirky, and imperfect both as heroes and villains. The play where one sees this most clearly is Skylight (1995), for my money his most successful work. It’s the classic Hare setup, a collision between two people who see life differently but are nonetheless connected: a successful Thatcher-era businessman and his former mistress, a schoolteacher in London’s East End. You know where Hare comes down in the debate between their values. But the play does not exist for one character’s worldview to vanquish the other’s. Both are by turns persuasive, flawed, and poignant.

The recent offerings on Broadway show not only Hare’s gift for the exposition of issues but also his limitations. The Blue Room, which I saw in its London production last fall, was probably the weakest of the bunch. Arthur Schnitzler’s original play, La Ronde, was a scandalous-for-its-time depiction of empty sexual promiscuity–so scandalous it wasn’t meant to be performed. But with the shock value lost, the play needed something more than Hare’s topical amendments added. His adaptation didn’t provide much food for thought, which is unusual for him. A bit of hackwork, it suggested that he might be spreading himself too thin.

V ia Dolorosa, which I also saw in London, is more stimulating (intellectually), but only a bit. Based on a visit to Israel, it’s journalism by other means of the sort that Anna Deveare Smith has done so brilliantly. But Hare is no Smith. His performance adds little to his script, and his script adds little to the subject, arriving mostly at familiar platitudes about Israel. Nonetheless, one has to admire his guts for trying to entertain an audience single-handedly with a talk about Middle East politics, no less. And the work is somewhat interesting despite its inherent limitations. We see how Hare can turn even a monologue into a kind of dialogue of perspectives, as he pits the passionate commitment of West Bank settlers against the humanism of the Israeli culturati. “Are we where we live or what we think?” he asks at the end of the play. “What matters? Stones or Ideas?”

Amy’s View, the best of the recent works to show up here, is a more familiar and successful exercise. It is a play with clear imperfections, such as an excessively shrill third act. But one forgives such flaws because of the way Hare draws his audience into the play’s issues. Here the debate he sets up is a three-way among mother, daughter, and the daughter’s boyfriend. Esme, played by Judi Dench, is an actress who lives for the theater. Her daughter, one of Hare’s ethereal women a little too good for this world, lives for love. The daughter’s boyfriend, Dominic, is a cynic who lives only for himself.

Within this conflict of values is a clash about art. Dominic, a director of exploitative films and television, contends that the theater is a dead form. Esme stands in for the continued vitality of the stage. The final act finds her having lost everything–her home, her financial independence, and her daughter–but performing brilliantly in a new play that she describes as “sincere.” We see her failings redeemed through commitment to her craft. The same might justly be said of the man who wrote the play.