The Peter Nichols play about adultery that opened last night at the Longacre is called "Passion," yet it is wholly dispassionate and far too clever by halves. A man, his wife, and their alter egos move about like chess pieces in this domestic drama, while the man's mistress occupies the center of the board. In the end, the man is checkmated, and so, unfortunately, are we.
In essence, this is the story of James and Eleanor, a London couple married 25 years, their children grown up and departed. Seduced by Kate, a buoyant young nymphomaniac who is half his age, and whose equally middle-aged lover has recently died, James tries to make the best of both alliances, and fails.
James is a flourishing art restorer, Eleanor a voice teacher; and the only halfway passionate moments are provided by James' derisive remarks about Christ's passion as he studies a painting of Jesus, and by great dollops of the Mozart Requiem and Bach's St. Matthew Passion that burst on us and through the etiolated characters from time to time.
James' infidelity is exposed (by now, both alter egos, dressed the same as the figures they represent, have joined the proceedings) when Agnes, the vengeful widow of the man Kate stole away, presents Eleanor with a heated love letter, from James to Kate, that she has intercepted during one of her surreptitious searches of the girl's flat (Kate travels a good deal) by means of a key she's found among her late husband's effects. From here on, Nichols moves his pieces about in various combinations, even to the edge of a menage a trois - or a menage a cinq, in this case.
It's a ridiculously simple story that Nichols has gussied up like some epic affair, and salted with much sexy talk and feverish groping, some fairly obvious puns, half-baked aphorisms on the order of "You're a romantic; promiscuous people always are," and, in general, a good deal of middlebrow philosophizing that all combine somehow to give the evening a gelid cast.
While the six already mentioned are the only articulate characters, there are several non-speaking parts as, for example, when Eleanor visits an analyst whose lips move silently, or when a section of John Lee Beatty's versatile living-room set (but why not a chessboard floor with enormous squares?) opens up to reveal the music room, a boutique, or else a restaurant with several lunching couples, or, in the final scene, when a number of guests, including the son and daughter home for the holidays, arrive for the Christmas festivities. That's when Eleanor's other self goes out the door, and though her corporal self stays behind, we know from James' stunned look that the soul has fled from their marriage, though Kate will surely remain both handy and randy.
The cast is exceedingly capable, with Bob Gunton and Cathryn Damon as the married pair afflicted by middle-age crisis, and an energetic and amusing Frank Langella and an E. Katherine Kerr who come close to moving us as the alter egos. Roxanne Hart is desirable, indeed, as Kate, and Stephanie Gordon, as the widow, metes out her poison in level tones.
As you can see, "Passion" (called "Passion Play" in London) has been a fiendishly difficult work to stage, what with the constantly shifting dialogue and relationships among the interchanging characters, as well as cross-current exchanges involving the other two, Kate and Agnes. The director, Marshall W. Mason, hasn't been altogether successful in sorting out the confusion in this studied, unnecessarily tricky piece of stagecraft by the author of a number of distinctive plays with interesting flourishes, notably "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg."
The time of "Passion," by the way, is autumn, and it felt like autumn for the entire two-and-a-half hours.
Peter Nichols always has been one of the most fascinating of the contemporary playwrights, and in Passion, which opened last night at the Longacre Theater, he has given us a savage comedy about love, sex and despair.
Perhaps most about despair - although that does not prevent it from being heartrendingly funny, particularly at first, before the blood starts to be drawn in earnest, and Nichols becomes too honest and too serious for simple laughter.
James and Eleanor have been married for 25 years. More or less faithfully. It seems that Eleanor once had a wild, unexpected, romp on a sofa - but that, and a longer, non-sexual affair, scarcely counted in the scheme of things.
Now middle age has set in. James' best friend - the subject of the romp, by the way, but this is London - has died, leaving a young, common-law widow, Kate, who is cute, sexy, available, interested in older men and desirous of James.
Nichols now shows us the progress of the affair - and shows it to us brilliantly. There are people with strong and funny feelings without the traditional restraints of religious or even moral principles.
They are people left afloat on a sea of passion which is partly sex, obviously, but could also be love.
What makes Nichols particularly interesting as a playwright is his sheer confidence with technique. He seems to have gone on record with some statement that this is to be his last play. I don't believe it for a single minute - and if I did I would be very sad - but certainly technically he has surpassed himself. And so simply.
Always he has been interested in moving theater in different directions. Ever since his Day in the Death of Joe Egg he has been pushing for some kind of duality of theatrical expression. Some way of standing outside that proscenium arch and - frankly - commenting.
The idea is to get a double input. It's partly Brechtian, so you see events reflected in the mirror-image of the characters.
Here he has come straight out with it. A story of adultery. But both the husband and the wife are played by two actors. At first he lets you think that this is simply ego and alter-ego - the kind of Jungian nonsense that Woody Allen would have thought of before he found Bergman - but it soon becomes far more complex.
By putting these two lives on these two different planes - and, in the second act, the crucial act, switching them around so even as audience, let alone as people, you're not quite sure who is who - you see a relationship in the whole gaudy, bloody, pattern of life.
Nichols is one of the great theatrical magicians. He fools you into a naughty, stultified, kind of amazement. He is a conjurer. But much more - although to be honest, I don't know that there is much more in the theater than a conjurer - he is a poet, certainly, and a juggler perhaps. But with Nichols we can settle for a conjurer.
In the first act, indeed, you settle for a very clever light comedy. But Nichols knows that life is not precisely a light comedy, and he starts to hurt quite outrageously.
Nichols has never been a playwright with a message - he is a playwright with a report.
Apart from his technical expertise - which I am possibly stressing unfairly simply because it is so evident - he has a way of picking up conversation. It is the art of finding character in the air of the way people disclose themselves as people.
The original play - I didn't see it in London - was staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It is such a London play it must be difficult to translate to New York. That, however said, it is still done brilliantly. Marshall W. Mason has directed it as if it were taking place in Yonkers. Miraculously it still works. But Yonkers?
It is a not a well-produced play. The decor by John Lee Beatty - a good designer - is terrible, but the costumes, especially the lingerie, by Jennifer Von Mayrhauser, are terrific.
But the vital essence of London is missing. This needs to take place in Eaton Square. But Yonkers?
As the hero's alter ego, Frank Langella is a delight - he takes double takes as if they were triple, and he is adorable and passionate. This is a great star performance.
Bob Gunton, as Langella's other half, has the advantage of looking slightly like Langella, but he can't act like Langella. He is a fine performer and I have never seen him give such a poor and mannered performance.
The two wives - as it were - Cathryn Damon and E. Katherine Kerr, are both strawerry delights, melding with one another with a special style and image.
And as for the mistress, Roxanne Hart looks and breathes so sexually that she can even enhance the very sexy costumes Miss von Mayrhauser has so sexually provided.
This is an important play. It could - apart from Langella - have been better done. Yet it has the humor of the moment and it points out - intensely - the way people live, feel, think and love. At this last gasp of the season, it lights up Broadway.
It really is true: There are no tired stories - only tired writers. In ''Passion,'' at the Longacre, the English playwright Peter Nichols takes one of the oldest tales in the book - a middle-aged husband has an affair with a younger woman - and, with virtuoso writing and unsparing honesty, rocks the foundations of an audience's complacency. The gripping, recognizable world in this play is a barren contemporary landscape where husbands and wives can divorce easily, but where passion and suffering form an unholy union that no one can tear asunder. It's the most savage view of marriage yet from the author of ''A Day in the Death of Joe Egg'' and ''Forget-Me-Not Lane.''
But like all his characters, Mr. Nichols, too, has a cross to bear. Not since ''Joe Egg'' has any play of his received a first-class American premiere, and ''Passion,'' sad to say, is no exception. Marshall W. Mason's staging of this bitter comedy has one major asset - Frank Langella's best performance in years - but it looks underrehearsed and haphazardly conceived. Although the peaks of the writing still can be felt - with impaling sharpness in Act I - one is steadily aware of the missed opportunities that blunt the impact of the whole.
Mr. Nichols's plays demand dazzling direction and polished acting, in part because they almost always involve tricky theatrical devices - from vaudeville turns to surreal fantasies. In ''Passion,'' the playwright rethinks the eternal love triangle by using a strategy that reverses Harold Pinter's in the somewhat similar ''Betrayal.'' Instead of fracturing time to create drama out of what his characters do not say, Mr. Nichols slows down time to force his characters to tell all.
His troubled married couple of 25 years, James (Bob Gunton) and Eleanor (Cathryn Damon), are shadowed by their private selves, in the form of Mr. Langella and E. Katherine Kerr. By giving literal second faces to two-faced characters, the author can reveal what James and Eleanor are really feeling; he can stage interior psychological debates that are usually beyond the reach of the theater. He can also, in the final stretch, pull the terrifying switch of letting the alter egos usurp the roles of the public James and Eleanor almost entirely: There's ultimately no privacy for people who enter the hell of inexorable self-destruction.
At first the rewards of this double-image effect are farcical revelations of hypocrisy. When James successfully lies to Eleanor to cover up his first assignation with his young lover, Kate (Roxanne Hart), Mr. Langella dances around in celebration while Mr. Gunton retains the properly placid public front. But soon the divided nature of the characters - and the juxtapositions of longing and heartbreak - become rending. When we watch the two Jameses draft a love letter to Kate at home, we simultaneously see both Eleanors learn about the letter's existence while dining at a restaurant. ''Think of nothing,'' pleads the disintegrating private wife to the relatively composed public one, ''or you'll cry.''
Yet this technique - which has also been used well by playwrights like Brian Friel and Marsha Norman - isn't the sum of Mr. Nichols's achievement. In its Royal Shakespeare Company premiere in 1981, ''Passion'' was called ''Passion Play'' - and a neo-religious play it is. James and Eleanor are atheists, but they're haunted by the God they've killed off. Eleanor, a music teacher, loves church music: She sings in an amateur chorus, and the fortissimo ''Dies Irae'' of her concerts frequently floods the characters' verbal, four-part fugues of consciousness. James is an art restorer by profession: Though he usually works on modern paintings, he must also retouch the occasional portrait of a crucified Christ.
James fools around with his mistress precisely to escape the 2,000-year grip of Christian morality: Kate is a product of a new, '60's generation that ''disregards conventional values.'' But when the conventions are gone, what's left proves a ''minefield of lies'' - an abyss as devoid of clear codes as the blank, minimalist paintings that usually cross James's easel.
Once Eleanor discovers her husband's adultery, she's so lost that she even loses faith in the conviction that there are ''human answers'' to ''human questions''; her only solace is sleeping pills. James argues to her that a middle-aged man whose ''motor is running down'' has a right to ''a flash of happiness before the void.'' Yet that happiness is empty: In the end James decides that love is ''a terrible thing'' that only ''means whatever you want it to.''
Mr. Nichols isn't calling for a reinstitution of what a character calls ''a rundown monogamy.'' He raises open-ended questions without answering them, finally to end his play at a Christmas party that bleeds into a chilling symbolic tableau - a resurrection for the couple's souls that is more nihilistic than New Testament. The play's flaws are of form, not philosophy. In Act II, Mr. Nichols stretches the narrative and repeats points. He also fails to convince us that Eleanor and Kate would remain social acquaintances even as James bounces between them.
Mr. Mason, often a first-rate director, cannot be faulted for employing an American cast: just remember ''Quartermaine's Terms'' or ''Plenty'' to see how effective our actors can be in British roles. But the misuse of the talented Mr. Gunton as the public, 50-ish James is simply inexplicable. No matter how hard Jennifer von Mayrhauser's excellent costumes try to age him, he seems a contemporary of Miss Hart's Kate - who is constantly described as being young enough to be his daughter. The damage is severe: it's hard to get caught up in a middle-aged man's fear of death when the man in question looks 35.
Miss Damon and Miss Kerr's Eleanors show promise, but clearly need more playing time to jell. So do the sloppy scene transitions, timing and lighting. What practice can't correct is Mr. Mason's failure to find a unifying style for Mr. Nichols's cinematic blending of realism, fantasy and overlapping action. The director's confused, scattershot approach is perfectly emblemized by the clumsy, patchwork set: John Lee Beatty has designed a flavorless, two-level home suitable for a boulevard comedy and then let it battle esthetically and logistically with a Magritte-esque street backdrop and the awkward, stylized, fold-out pieces that represent other locales.
Beside the refreshingly direct work of Mr. Langella - whose agile private James moves seamlessly from charming puckishness to terminal anguish - there is a fine performance from Miss Hart as the mistress. Her selfish, obscene Kate is a pure and frightening incarnation of the modern pleasure principle gone amok. With the aid of these two actors and a keen ear attuned to Mr. Nichols's witty language and grave intentions, theatergoers can see that ''Passion,'' the last of the 1982-83 Broadway season's plays, is one of the best. What remains totally unclear - though typical of our theater's recent haplessness - is why so rare and valuable a script has been mounted with less care than most of the past year's mediocrities.