Kate Nelligan has at last reached Broadway where she assuredly belongs, having followed a circuitous route in David Hare's knotty drama "Plenty," beginning with the play's London production in the spring of 1978, continuing with its Off Broadway one last fall at the Public, and now having arrived at the Plymouth. Though the 14 players are listed (and pictured) in alphabetical order in the program, the commanding actress is of such indisputable star quality that finding her name anywhere but above the title seems an unforgivable oversight.
As you are probably well aware by now, the multi-scened work traces the fortunes of Susan Traherne, a bright young idealistic Englishwoman, from her days with the French Resistance, when she looked forward to an enlightened and bountiful postwar world, through a stultifying business career culminating in a mental collapse, followed by a therepeutic but ultimately unsatisfying marriage to a young diplomat, concluding - this in an opening scene in 1962, the others leading up to it - with her walking out on her husband, their fine Knightsbridge home, and all her possessions. A 20th century Nora, her future is left for us to speculate on.
Though she is unable to make the scenes, a few of them brilliantly effective (the drawing-room one closing the first half is both a dramatic and humorous high spot, and carried off by Nelligan with enormous style), of Hare's lofty and uneven drama hang together, she shapes the contradictory elements of Susan's character with astonishing authority.
The supporting cast is a sound one, for the most part. There are excellent contributions by Edward Herrmann as the diplomat husband Susan disgraces, by George N. Martin as a stuffy senior diplomat, by Daniel Gerroll as a young Cockney whom Susan chooses almost at random to father a child (the effort, over 18 months, is unsuccessful), and by Bill Moor as a smug civil servant. Only Ellen Parker's performance in that time-proven role of the wisecracking best friend struck me as unseasoned.
Of the few minor cast changes in this New York Shakespeare Festival production, Ben Masters does well by the only significant one, that of the British agent Codename Lazar with whom Susan has an ironic reunion in a sleazy Blackpool hotel room in the next-to-closing scene.
Even downtown, the physical production, highlighted by John Gunter's spare, artfully designed sets, was obviously just a step away from Broadway, and now here it is, along with a new and genuine Broadway star whose presence immeasurably enriches our poor season. May she long remain, in play after play.
David Hare's dream-play Plenty has finally arrived on Broadway, it opened at the Plymouth Theater last night, and this is the best news of the Broadway season so far.
Originally produced by Britain's National Theater, and staged earlier this season by Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival at its Public Theater downtown, Plenty has transferred to Broadway for what must, unfortunately, be a limited engagement.
The more you see of Hare's play and its star, Kate Nelligan, the more impressed you become with both. Seeing Plenty first in London, then downtown and now on Broadway, my admiration for it grows - and there was plenty for Plenty even at the outset.
I called Plenty earlier on a "dream play." Certainly it is not a conventional realistic drama. Rather it is Hare's view of the British nation - the "bloodless English," he calls them, where even "passion comes at you down a blocked nose" - and its lost expectations after World War II.
Set against this social, even political background, is the portrait of a strange woman. She is a woman who "likes to lose control." A woman who can say, echoing the playwright who either dreamed or met her: "Look at me and make a judgment."
So Hare's play exists in two perspectives - it is like one of those optical illusions that turns its pattern inside out. First it is a portrait of a crumbling empire and a fading national spirit. Second it is a picture of Susan, a self-willed woman; stupid, selfish, hanging on desperately to shreds of glory, and somehow lovable in her magnificent folly.
Susan found her moment as an underground courier in Nazi-occupied France - found then a significance to live that it subsequently lost. She will not adapt to the futility of an England where "behavior is all," where "mostly what we do is what we think people expect of us."
Searching for fulfillment she runs riot through the little mediocrity of life - she is at once a monster and a divinity, a woman people love at their peril, an unguided missile programmed to self-destruct.
Nelligan is incredibly credible as Susan. Hare writes very well for women - I recall his role for Helen Mirren in Teeth 'n' Smiles - and here writer and actress have come together most remarkably.
She goes through the play with the half-amused, practiced look of royalty - she behaves like a princess among the peasantry. At times the simplest phrase will be enunciated as if she were opening Parliament, and she strides around - Hare himself staged it, by the way - as if she were wearing a spotlight as a halo.
She talks between quotation marks, she poses for secret cameras, she moves to hidden choreography. It is a performance larger than the life around it - so the performance itself uniquely becomes a demonstration of the truth of the play it enshrines.
For, in a real sense, Hare's theme concerns the difficulty of being Queen Elizabeth I in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Nelligan seems to know.
The rest of the cast stand in her shadow - except for Edward Herrmann as her wimpy diplomatic diplomat of a husband, who doesn't just stand there but shouts most memorably. A wonderful performance, full of true passion's understatment. Note too George N. Martin and Ellen Parker representing the old and new Englands respectively, as do, in a lower key, Bill Moor and Daniel Gerroll.
What a rich fantasy-tapestry Hare has given us, beautiful in its detailing, from its dramatic flights of fancy to its richly studied setting, enhanced by John Gunter's scenery and Jane Greenwood's costumes.
It is a play with as many fleshily pungent layers as an onion. View it objectively - and take from it what you want - history, portraiture, wit, entertainment. The play can be many things to many audiences. That is Plenty for you.
On January 6, 1983 "Plenty" transferred from the Off-Broadway Public/Newman to the Plymouth Theatre. Pierre Epstein replaced Dominic Chianese, Ben Masters replaced Kelsey Grammer & Jeff Allen replaced Stephen Mellor.
It's not until late in Act II that the audience hears the noise of breaking glass in David Hare's ''Plenty,'' but long before then, we've become terribly familiar with the harrowing sound of things going smash. A partial list of the evening's casualties would include at least three lives, one empire (the British), the egalitarian ideals of a generation and many of the conventions of the traditional narrative play.
But if this sounds reckless, Mr. Hare is no indiscriminate vandal. Out of the bloody shards of the ruins, this young British playwright has meticulously erected an explosive theatrical vision of a world that was won and lost during and after World War II.
''Plenty,'' which was first produced by England's National Theater in 1978, received its New York premiere last night at the Public's Newman Theater, where it brings this stillborn theatrical autumn to stunning life. Like the original production, the current one has been directed by the author and stars Kate Nelligan. It couldn't be any other way. Working with a largely American cast, Mr. Hare has staged his work with a precise and chilling lyricism that perfectly complements his disquieting writing. As for Miss Nelligan, the Canadian-born actress known for her screen role in ''The Eye of the Needle,'' mere adjectives are beside the point. Only a fool would hold his breath waiting to see a better performance this season.
The star, who is onstage throughout, plays Susan Traherne, an Englishwoman who, at 17, served as a courier for the French Resistance behind German lines. ''Plenty'' is about what happens to Susan during the war and in the two disillusioning decades to come. Convinced that the heroic values of the Resistance would carry over to the ''New Europe'' of peacetime, Susan soon finds herself traipsing through mindless jobs and destructive relationships in a declining England that is choking on ''plenty'' but has lost its moral rudder. Intolerant of both her society and intimates, she drifts into madness and takes her innocent, loving husband, a Foreign Service officer played by Edward Herrmann, down with her.
Mr. Hare tells Susan's tale in a dozen scenes that are ripped out of chronological order. His play's structure, which can be slightly confusing, employs flashback, flashforward and in media res. While it's a jigsaw puzzle that only comes together at the end, it's no gimmick: Mr. Hare has found a visceral theatrical embodiment for the central tension in his heroine's soul. The France of the 1940's is always as much in focus as the modern England of Suez and rampant commercialization; we constantly see each setting refracted through the other.
The liberated chronology also allows the author to crystallize his highly selective story and character details; he strips away psychological, plot and ideological exposition to achieve a concentrated naturalism. Susan, like the Hedda Gabler she sometimes resembles (gun included), is an incandescent, troubling force who doesn't have to be explained away: we see her in context and she just is. As Miss Nelligan says to Mr. Herrmann in their first meeting, ''I tell you nothing - I just say look at me and make a judgment.'' That complicated judgment, which is ultimately asked from all of us, is the incendiary crux of the play.
The writing's jagged fractionalization further gives ''Plenty'' a hallucinatory, nightmarish quality that makes it feel more like a disorienting Nicholas Roeg film than John Osborne's ''Look Back in Anger.'' The mood of mystery is heightened by Nick Bicat's subtly ominous music and the superb physical production.
John Gunter's sets float like haunted Magritte rooms within the stage's walls, which are papered with a ghostly black-and-gray mural of a bygone romantic England. Jane Greenwood's costumes, meanwhile, anchor the characters in vivid social reality. The lighting designer, Arden Fingerhut, gives the gloom of contemporary London a remarkable variety of dreamlike textures even as she creates the dangerous, pulse-quickening glow of a nocturnal war-torn France where parachutes plummet from the stars.
The dialogue within each scene is often a tour de force interweaving subliminal rage, ellipses and caustic wit. Mr. Hare doesn't waste words, and the ones he uses are crackling, whether they deal with the dreary English climate (even ''passion comes down at you through a blocked nose'') or the internecine politics of a Foreign Service that requires 6,000 officers to dismantle an empire that once only took 600 men to run. In the play's most remarkable scene - a diplomatic party in the midst of the Suez debacle - a grueling marital fight is blended in with an anguished political debate, comical small talk about an Ingmar Bergman film and the hilarious malapropisms of a sycophantic Burmese ambassador (Conrad Yama).
The mostly exemplary supporting cast begins with Mr. Herrmann, who may be giving the performance of his career as Susan's husband, a moneyed, generous, self-reproachful man who sadly pursues his diplomatic calling because, as he plaintively asks, ''What other world do I have?'' His sputtering collapse is preceded by one brave and rending effort to break through his cheery reserve and jolt Susan back into reality.
No less brilliant is George Martin, who provides a tragic yet funny, Graham Greene-esque version of the farcical, fussbudget British bureaucrat he performed in Harold Pinter's ''The Hothouse'' last season. There is also flawless work from Ellen Parker as Susan's best friend, a bohemian who survives her alienation as the heroine does not, and from Daniel Gerroll, as an amiable working-class fellow who is pitifully gored by Susan's sexual manipulations.
Miss Nelligan's performance can be admired in a multitude of ways: for its unflagging intensity, for its lack of mannerisms in delineating a neurotic character, for the seamlessness with which it blends the clear-eyed, rosy-cheeked Susan of 17 with the feverish, slow-burning firecracker of a woman who follows. In the play's middle stretches - when she's tossing out sardonic wisecracks about her advertising copywriter's job or calmly plotting to have a child by a man she ''barely knows'' - the actress manages to show us how a deeply disturbed woman could appear completely lucid, even dazzlingly self-possessed.
Later on Miss Nelligan provides ''a psychiatric cabaret'' - first when she lashes out with unprovoked obscenities at Mr. Herrmann in public circumstances, then when she levitates into drugged hysteria while meeting a revered but now pathetic old Resistance comrade (Kelsey Grammer) for a nostalgic assignation in a seedy Blackpool hotel room. Yet, as magnetic and moving as Miss Nelligan is, she never neglects the selfishness and cruelty of a woman who makes the wrong people pay for the failings of a civilization.
That's important, because, in Mr. Hare's view, Susan is perhaps more responsible for those failings than anyone around her. If the author believes that idealists have a right to ''a kind of impatience'' with a world that betrays their noble, hard-won victories, he also seems to feel that Susan should have struggled anew for those ideals rather than ''lose control'' by giving in to bitterness and cynicism. And, of course, his perspective applies not only to World War II Resistance fighters, but also to the endless waves of defeated idealists who came before and after.
That's why the sharp edges of this relentlessly gripping play reach beyond its specific milieu to puncture our conscience. It's also why ''Plenty'' pointedly ends not with its heroine's defeat, but with a blazing tableau in which the young, innocent Susan of 1944 climbs a bucolic hill to ''get a better view'' of the newly liberated France that once promised her a utopian future. In ''Plenty,'' Mr. Hare asks that we, too, climb up to reclaim a ''better view'' - but not before he has shaken us violently at the bottom of that hill, not before he's forced us to examine just how we choose to live in our own world of plenty right now.