David Hare is a poet of aridity, a maker of garlands for a time of spiritual dryness. Unlike another such bard, T.S. Eliot, who thirsts for something Beyond, Hare is content arranging dried flowers.
In "The Secret Rapture," a view of the parched landscape of Margaret Thatcher's England (which has clear parallels on this side of the Atlantic), the emotional dryness that seems characteristic of Hare's people - and that was quite mesmerizing in "Plenty" - is so pronounced, so insistent it ceases to fascinate.
Most of the characters sound only one note. Marion, for example, a minister of the environment in the conservative government, seems happiest outwitting ecologically concerned citizens. Her husband, Tom, is a born-again Christian whose religion never gets in the way of his commercial ruthlessness.
Another one-note character is Katherine, a young woman who married Marion's father shortly before his death. If Marion and her husband represent the most ominous side of the political right, Katherine, in her aggressiveness, her general destructiveness, suggests those narcissistic tendencies incited in the '60s by the frothing left.
Caught between them is Marion's reasonable, decent sister Isobel, who is undone both by the machinations of Marion and Tom and by her own well-meaning but stupid solicitude for Katherine. The other innocent character, her lover and business partner Irwin, is first ensnared by Marion and Tom, then harmed by his desire to make Isobel see the folly of protecting the odious Katherine.
(There is another character, Rhonda, who seems nothing more than The Friend left over from "Plenty.")
The play begins by evoking charming, dilapidated Olde England, represented by the sisters' late father, a thoroughly unmercenary bookseller, whose house the greedy Katherine intends to sell. At the end of the play Marion has reclaimed the house. She tries to restore it to what it was, but her restoration is ultimately sterile.
Hare's parable of contemporary England, brought back to a hollow replica of its former glory by Thatcher's mean-spirited regime, is itself too calculated, too schematized to move us. Even the sympathetic characters become astringent, arbitrary pawns of the author. We are not troubled by their fate, merely annoyed. When a gun goes off in the second act it seems less the necessity of the moment than the need to obey Chekhov's rule that if a loaded gun appears onstage it must be fired.
As Isobel, Blair Brown has great strength and the eloquent sense of irony to deliver Hare's often trenchant wit. But the lyrical way she moves and the radiance she projects are undercut by the character's inexplicable stubbornness and stupidity.
Michael Wincott, as her lover, has a powerful sensitivity throughout, though even he cannot make his final actions plausible. The one-note characters - Frances Conroy as Marion and Mary Beth Hurt as the strident Katherine - are played with exhausting intensity. Stephen Vinovich has a deft charm as Tom. Jennifer Van Dyck is fetching in the cryptic role of The Friend.
Santo Loquasto's haunting ochre mural of the English countryside has a depth, a resonance lacking in Hare's rigid portrait of a dry land waiting for acid rain.
What an unusual playwright David Hare is! His plays slide up on one insidiously - always suggesting more than they first suggest, planing depth-charges in the mind, subtly laying a mine-field in the self-confidence of one's first impression.
Take "The Secret Rapture," which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater after an unusually successful world premiere at Britain's National Theater at the end of last year.
It is, I suppose, a comedy about death with more opinions than laughs. It starts with a funeral and ends with a funeral, and in between we see the petty triumph of evil over good, the pointless death of a saintly conscience and the decline of a nation, all presented with the closing possibility of either rebirth or acceptance.
Of course, we don't really see all that. That is what, with the author's encouragement - partly through interviews and the like - we try to see.
What we actually see is a family (two sisters, really, and the flotsam that floats with them) trying to adjust itself to the death of a father. We see a cottage industry successfully taken over by mansion politics and effectively destroyed. We see a woman rejecting a man and a man unable to be rejected.
Even the title has a hidden agenda - referring, according to the playwright, to that "moment when a nun expects to be united with Christ. In other words, it's death." We are in deep waters here.
As so often with Hare - I think I first noticed it in his wonderful early play "Teeth 'n' Smiles" - what we have here are private figures functioning in a public landscape.
In "The Secret Rapture" it is Thatcherite England, not that different from a Reaganite United States, although now the landscape here has bushes rather than trees. The theme is private enterprise for private good and the demise of benevolent disinterest.
The original London production - a very subtle and spiffy affair by Howard Davies - almost made Hare's heroine a saint, perhaps by taking too seriously the nunlike hint of the title; in the play's vital closing moments, it saw her halfway to beatification.
This New York production, directed by Hare himself, takes care of all that. Now Isobel, one of the sisters and the unbending heroine of smiling principle and divine love, is far more human, fallible and irritating - and by similar tokens, those around her have become rather less ogreishly inhuman.
The transformation has been achieved by a number of small textual changes but, even more, by an overall directorial approach.
The difficulty, as I see it, is that whereas in London the text and its rather murky, message-laden subtext seemed merged in a production that was stylized in outline but rigorously naturalistic in the conversational detailing of its acting, in this New York version, they are split asunder.
The split comes largely from performances, outwardly more realistic in intent but carried off with such histrionic flourish (arms sawing the air like semaphores, breast heaving mightily in time with the emotions) that the play seems unbearably stagey.
One suddenly notices a curtain line such as: "The guns are getting nearer. God, will nobody leave us in peace?" Hell, no!
Now, what in London seemed vague but poetic, in New York seems obscurantist, pretentious and annoying. In short, Hare as a director does not seem to be his own best friend, although who can gainsay his right to present his own vision.
Mind you, the evening is far, far from wasted. At stage level - footlight level, if you like - these characters are entertaining, even engrossing (you remain fascinated in their interplay and outcome), and there are a few capital jokes and some lovely, thumping-home truths about the way we live.
The fun character is not the unconfused yet still baffled Isobel but her sister, a Cabinet minister called Marion who runs through the play as if it were a roller coaster and she was the only person with wheels.
Frances Conroy, who plays this termagant, gives a brilliant impersonation of Margaret Thatcher in full cry (in London the characterization was more based on one of her former junior ministers, Edwina Curry), and her untramelled vigor is neatly matched by Mary Beth Hurt as the awful but life-assertive alcoholic widow of the dead father.
Hurt, incidentally, has one of the key thematic lines in the play when she declares, with grasshopper authority, that the world owes her a living: "The good people are here to help trashy people like me."
As Isobel, Blair Brown - for whom the role was originally written - seemed oddly uncertain and charmless, stubborn but without any naive spirituality to give that stubbornness its lift to radiance.
Neither Michael Wincot as Isobel's doomed suitor nor Stephen Vinovich as an unctuous businessman for Jesus who has a glimpse of the true light was much help to the evening, while Jennifer Van Dyck made a positively antiseptic sexpot.
There is more in this play than is met in this production, which, like Santo Loquasto's scenery and Jane Greenwood's costumes, is well-meaning but a trifle dull.
In the one moving scene in David Hare's new play, ''The Secret Rapture'' - the last - the audience is suddenly overwhelmed by pity for a young woman it has hated all night long. The woman is Marion French, a Tory junior cabinet minister whose faith in dog-eat-dog capitalism is so unshakable and whose contempt for her adversaries is so patronizing that she makes Margaret Thatcher seem like Mary Poppins. But Marion has been shaken now. The home of her recently deceased father, a provincial bookseller, is being dismantled. Someone she loves has been murdered in a crime of passion. And so Frances Conroy, the actress who plays Marion in a progression of starchy yuppie business suits, cracks apart, her once stony face streaked by tears.
What consumes Marion, and what touches even those who despise her, is not her specific losses so much as her feeling of utter helplessness. She has been engulfed by the chaos that comes when people's passions spin out of control, and she realizes that there is nothing in her philosophy to save her. In ''The Secret Rapture,'' Mr. Hare uses the tragic story of Marion and her very different sister, Isobel (Blair Brown), as an ecumenical parable of the failure of all religions, temporal and spiritual, to offer salvation in the world we have made. The saintly Isobel, a free-spirited graphics artist who is as selfless as Marion is materialistic, is also crushed by the uncontrollable passions around her. So is the play's one true believer in old-time faith, Marion's sad-eyed husband, Tom (Stephen Vinovich), a born-again Christian entrepreneur who cannot find Jesus at the moment when he needs Him most.
Mr. Hare, the author of ''Plenty'' and ''A Map of the World,'' is not merely the flip socialist ideologue that he is so often taken for, and in ''The Secret Rapture'' he has gone further than before in marrying political thought to the compelling drama of lives that refuse to conform to any ideology's utopian plan. Framing his play with a pair of funerals, he tells a story of a warring family and obsessive love even as he folds in a polemical ''Other People's Money''-style case history of corporate cannibalism and greed in the Thatcher-Reagan era. But Mr. Hare, serving as his play's director for its Broadway premiere at the Barrymore, is his own worst enemy. The passion and wit that reside in his script - and that are essential to engage an audience and lead it to his ideas - are left unrealized in this production.
Those who did not see last season's London staging of ''The Secret Rapture,'' directed by Howard Davies (''Les Liaisons Dangereuses''), are blameless if they find Mr. Hare's New York version baffling right up to that final scene. The textual tinkering since London may be minor, but the wholesale changes of casting and design have flattened the play's subtleties into coarse agitprop and tossed its overall intentions into confusion. It's a measure of how poorly ''The Secret Rapture'' has been mounted here that a designer as gifted as Santo Loquasto has provided a dingy black-and-tan set that makes England, as much a character in the play as its people, indistinguishable from, say, metropolitan Cleveland. Between the drab set and the leaden staging that often reduces people to poseurs standing around at a cocktail party, we might as well be home listening to Mr. Hare's words on radio or reading them in a book.
The colorless presentation is of a piece with most of the acting. One of the delights of Mr. Hare's best writing is his ability to offer fully rounded views of characters of either political pole. He gives his ideological devils their due as magnetic leaders (the V. S. Naipaul figure in ''A Map of the World,'' the Rupert Murdoch stand-in of ''Pravda'') and is not afraid to mock the self-indulgence of would-be martyrs sharing his own leftist credo (Susan Traherne in ''Plenty''). Such ambiguities are ignored by both lead actresses in ''The Secret Rapture,'' who instead perform a dull, diagrammatic bad sister versus good sister act. Until her final scene, the talented Ms. Conroy is a desexed martinet - a humorless heavy. (Penelope Wilton, the Marion in London, was feminine and funny as well as forbidding.) In Ms. Brown's bland reading, Isobel's purity is a matter of lofty smiles and holier-than-thou vocal posturing; the inner fire of deep conviction is replaced by a skin-deep air of self-satisfaction.
It's no secret that Mr. Hare created Isobel for Ms. Brown; the published text of ''The Secret Rapture'' is dedicated to her. But judging from this production and Mr. Hare's new movie, ''Strapless,'' in which Ms. Brown also stars as a good sister, it is clear that another director will have to help the actress realize the dream performances that remain locked in the playwright's imagination. Mr. Hare has undermined his leading lady further by assigning the role of her lover to an idiosyncratic character actor, Michael Wincott, who is never convincing as either her love object or, later, as a romantic obsessive whose behavior drives the play's entire second act. When Mr. Wincott and Ms. Brown come to emotional blows at the pivotal opening of that act, the display of yelling and hand-waving is so embarrassingly empty that it earns unwanted laughter.
Under these underinhabited circumstances, ''The Secret Rapture'' is up for grabs, and Mary Beth Hurt runs away with the show in the secondary role of Katherine, an abusive, foul-mouthed alcoholic who was the much younger second wife of Isobel's and Marion's father. As she accomplished in Michael Frayn's thematically related play, ''Benefactors,'' Ms. Hurt inexorably exposes the buried violence of the eccentric Englishwoman-next-door who also happens to be insane. It's part of Mr. Hare's point that people like Katherine, one of two characters in the play who brandish lethal weapons, practice an evil that is eternally beyond the reach of both a virtuous do-gooder like Isobel and a public scold like Marion. The world has become a place where no good deed, let alone bad one, goes unpunished.
''I hate all this human stuff!'' says Marion at one point, frustrated by the way people with their ''endless complications'' insist on gumming up the best-laid plans by which she and all other right-thinking citizens would have society run smoothly. The beauty of ''The Secret Rapture,'' whose title refers to a nun's ecstatic unity with Christ at death, is that Mr. Hare embraces the human, messy though it may be. To do otherwise is to forestall rapture until death - or to settle for a soulless existence that one character calls a ''perfect imitation of life.'' What I don't understand is how a dramatist so deep in human stuff could allow so pallid an imitation of life to represent his play on a Broadway stage.