Terence Rattigan is a rare example of a writer whose reputation was rescued by revelations about his private life. Having been one of Britain's most successful playwrights, he became, from the mid-1950s onwards, an object for the scorn of the younger theatrical generation.
But, after his death in 1977, it became possible to discuss the fact that Rattigan was gay. Suddenly, his well-made plays seemed a lot more interesting. There has been, especially in England, a surge of interest in his work.
Yet this rather boring revival of one of his best plays suggests that the new enthusiasm may be as misplaced as the earlier contempt. Rattigan was a skilled playwright, and his work does probe beneath the surface of English respectability. But his sense of theater had narrow limits, and Mark Lamos' production never manages to get beyond them.
"The Deep Blue Sea" does show Rattigan's strengths. He was very good at capturing a certain kind of upper-class English character, and at charting the twists and turns of a woman's psyche.
The play, set in 1951, follows a day in the emotional life of Lady Hester Collyer, the estranged wife of a judge. She has left her husband for a young, immature test pilot. As the play opens, she is being revived after a failed attempt at suicide. From there, we tease out her relationships with husband and lover, and wonder if she can rebuild her life.
Blythe Danner's Hester carries the burden of the action, and she does so with just the right mixture of poise and passion. She lays out, with impressive clarity, the internal conflicts of a woman buffeted by "anger, hatred and shame." She makes you realize that, if Rattigan had more courage, the play ought to have been set inside her head.
The other characters, though, come up against the limits of Rattigan's imagination. One is that his language is hopelessly flat. When one character tells another that what he has just said "sounds rather like a prepared speech," we are tempted to reflect that so does all the rest of the dialogue. Edward Herrmann as the husband and David Conrad as the lover are stuck with the task of trying to inject some life into clipped, dry speech.
The second problem is that Rattigan had no real interest in exploring the possibilities of the stage. "The Deep Blue Sea" is as well made and as unadventurous as an English gentleman's pin-striped suit. Director Mark Lamos makes it fit comfortably enough, but it remains an all too accurate reflection of the world it depicts stiff, repressed and impeccably dull.
Terence Rattigan made plays the way Thomas Chippendale made furniture - very carefully. One of his best, "The Deep Blue Sea," turned up at the Roundabout Theater last night, and it proves a perfect example of how extraordinarily good a play can be without, for a moment, showing any particular sign of being great.
When the play opens, the heroine is found huddled in a shapeless heap in front of an unlit gas burner. Of course, at the time we don't know that this bundle of clothes is the heroine. We don't even know whether she - it looks like a she - is alive or dead. But the play, and we in the fascinated audience, are up and running.
Rattigan's exquisitely crafted piece is set in a bleak 1951 London. Six years have passed since the end of World War II, but in England it is still a chill age of austerity and ration books, and a cold climate for love.
The would-be suicide is Hester Collyer (Blythe Danner), a middle-class, early-middle-age beauty who has left her safe and stolid husband, a High Court Judge, Sir William Collyer (Edward Herrmann), to live with Freddie Page (David Conrad), a much-decorated wartime flyer and former test pilot.
Hester has a consuming sexual passion for Freddie, while Freddie, charming, jobless and by now chiefly absorbed by golf and booze, loves her in his fashion, staying in the uneven partnership from a mix of convenience, inertia and boyish affection.
The dramatic situation was - according to Rattigan's biographers and the theatrical gossip of the time - largely autobiographical, although transposed from Rattigan's own closeted homosexual lifestyle. The playwright, however, offers himself and his play many options.
Hester, lost in this hopeless relationship, feeling herself caught between the devil of her sexual need and the deep blue sea of suicide, is given the opportunity to return to her husband's safety net. Or suicide. Or perhaps accompany Freddie to Brazil, where he has the chance of working, once more, as a test pilot.
The solution Rattigan opts for - suggesting that survival is possible even without hope - seems something of a cop-out. It would not have done for Ibsen - but Rattigan is not Ibsen and "The Deep Blue Sea" is only a kind of boulevard tragedy, leaving us finally to admire its mechanics rather than thrill to its mechanism.
Mark Lamos has staged it with a sure, nicely nuanced hand, the designers John Arnone and Jane Greenwood have caught just the right air of run-down seediness, and at least two performances effortlessly strike Rattigan's mark.
Danner, confusedly passionate, lacks the devastating subcutaneous sexuality of Peggy Ashcroft in the 1952 premiere, but her tortured gentility compares well with Vivien Leigh in the movie version, and Herrmann, as the stiffly forgiving older man, loving awkwardly but dutifully, proves touchingly gauche.
The other roles are less securely given, which matters most in Conrad's unconvincing and charmless account of Freddie. The original Kenneth More, on both stage and screen, was shiftily charismatic, a jauntily sexy figure, a born lady-killer. Conrad's pallid Freddie, by contrast, seems more likely to prompt a headache than a suicide.
Yet the play still works surprisingly well. Rattigan certainly knew how to make them. Just like Chippendale.
Medical alert: a certain palsy, thought to have been wiped out decades ago, has resurfaced at the Criterion Center Stage Right. The affliction, which was epidemic in London theaters of the mid-century, arises when strong feelings clash with good breeding, and its victims can always be identified by one conspicuous symptom. That is the twitching stiff upper lip.
You may be familiar with the ailment from, if nothing else, ''Brief Encounter,'' David Lean's 1945 film of Noel Coward's tale of a man and woman who are made for each other but too noble to do anything about it. But the most advanced specialist in this pathology was the playwright Terence Rattigan, who ruled the West End in the 1940's and early 50's with stories of well-ordered lives unhinged by what one of his characters describes as ''a great tidal wave of illogical emotions.'' Or, as the same character proposes at another point, ''Shall we call it love?''
The lines come from Rattigan's ''Deep Blue Sea,'' which has been revived with many audible creaks by the Roundabout Theater Company. They are phrases meant to be uttered with crisp, upper-middle-class diction that never quite conceals the speaker's shattered heart. And you should probably know that the speaker, in this case, is a woman whose impeccable grooming and frosty politeness are evident even as she recovers from a most awkward suicide attempt.
With its mix of high-handed poise and subterranean hysteria, it's a part that teeters dangerously on the edge of camp. Fortunately, the production that opened last night stars Blythe Danner, who brings to it her native refinement and a deeply affecting conviction.
As Hester Collyer, the wife of an affluent judge who betrays her class by running off with a young test pilot, Ms. Danner plies her celebrated husky voice to sound depths of anguish beneath a surface coolness. She even manages a persuasive variation on the Rattigan twitch, her upper lip continually curling into an involuntary admission of self-disgust. The production doesn't make much of a case for reviving ''The Deep Blue Sea,'' especially with an American cast, but its leading lady finds the real cri de coeur at its center.
The adjectives ''brilliant'' and ''searing'' came up in reviews when the play first opened in London starring Peggy Ashcroft. You can see how it might have impressed. Like the author's later (and superior) ''Separate Tables,'' it has the hallmarks of serious ''adult'' theater of the period, with its frank but tasteful discussion of what Hester describes as ''something far too big and confusing to be tied up in a neat little parcel and labeled lust.''
But the fact remains that neat parcels were what Rattigan specialized in, and seen today, the strings that shape his works are all too visible. A gay man in an age when homosexuality was an imprisonable offense in England, the dramatist had a firsthand understanding of the effects of illicit love. He also, however, had an instinctive grasp of how to translate that understanding into terms that would be palatable to mainstream theatergoers, whom he famously classified under the collective name of ''Aunt Edna.''
Aunt Edna, he wrote, demands of a play only ''that it excite her to laugh or cry or to wonder what is going to happen next.'' Rattigan was renowned for his dexterity in eliciting those responses, but today it's impossible not to see the calculation in the craftsmanship, or to avoid feeling manipulated. You could really break down ''The Deep Blue Sea'' into the theatrical equivalents of the topic sentences and self-contained paragraphs so admired by English teachers.
The first 10 minutes of the play are a marvel of tidy exposition. Hester, found unconscious from gas fumes in the apartment she shares with her lover, Freddie Page (David Conrad), becomes an understandable subject of speculation among the neighbors who have discovered her. ''I wonder what made her do it,'' says one of them. Clues are immediately forthcoming in the dialogue that follows, and by the time a miraculously recovered Hester makes her re-entrance, we know a lot about her, including that she is still married to Sir William Collyer (Edward Herrmann), a fellow who appears ''in the papers quite a lot.''
Perhaps under ideal circumstances, this rapid dispensing of information would seem less artificial. But Rattigan, whom the actor Emlyn Williams described as ''the most English playwright one knows,'' is especially hard to put over for a non-British cast.
With even a hint of a self-conscious, affected accent, the dialogue can slide right into self-parody. (Hester to her husband: ''Love, Bill, you know that thing you read about in your beloved Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope.'')
Similarly, as the play continues, with characters entering and exiting with the efficiency of figures in a Feydeau farce, its themes seem to leap out as though they had been labeled with capital letters. The central subject, of course, is the humiliating things people do in the name of, well, shall we call it love? And Ms. Danner, who seems to be aging before our eyes in Jane Greenwood's trim period costumes, is willing to go quite a distance in showing that degradation. She brings an almost unbearable rawness to the scene in which Hester polishes Freddie's shoes as he tells her he is leaving her. (There is truly nothing like the English variety of self-mortification.)
But Ms. Danner doesn't have much to play off here. Freddie, described as ''a bit of an homme fatale,'' has to exude sexual magnetism. (Kenneth More, who created the part in London, was compared to Marlon Brando at the time.) Mr. Conrad simply seems callow, more like a boy Hester might have picked up from a schoolyard than a former member of the Royal Air Force whose best years were in the war. And though he is supposed to be an emotional cripple who can never reciprocate Hester's feelings, this Freddie is the most overwrought thing onstage, with a despair-signaling tremor in his voice.
Most of the rest of the cast seems comparably out of place, and Mark Lamos's direction does little to erase the consequent stiffness. Olek Krupa, as an Ibsenesque doctor with a shady past and a penchant for wise epigrams, suggests Bela Lugosi auditioning for the role of Oscar Wilde. He's entertaining, but for all the wrong reasons. Only Mr. Herrmann approaches Ms. Danner's level, and there are some quiet, poignant moments in which Hester and Bill relax into gossip about former friends where you realize how much she misses the life she has renounced.
But Mr. Herrmann and Ms. Danner can't save their characters' final confrontational dialogue, in which Hester tells Bill that he doesn't so much love her as regard her as ''a prized possession.'' Even in 1952, this must have seemed like a tepid rehash of Nora's last conversation with Torvald in ''A Doll's House.''
Overall, the interest of ''The Deep Blue Sea'' is more sociological than anything else. You're reminded that it was written in the years of privation in England after the war, a feeling nicely captured by John Arnone's dusty-looking set, with its fraying rugs and worn furniture.
A celebration of the art of making do and doing without still permeated popular culture in Britain. Mr. Rattigan's ingenious and highly commercial conceit was to interpret this spirit of self-denial in emotional terms. Love and even hope are luxuries that his characters must soldier on without.
This production is too clumsy to raise the lump in the throat still conjured by the same sentiments in the film of ''Separate Tables,'' for example. Ms. Danner, however, offers some haunting vistas of the dry, lonely future that such sacrifice demands.
Not so long ago, a traditionally structured postwar British drama like Terence Rattigan's "The Deep Blue Sea" would have been dismissed by a spectacle-besotted Broadway as a dull three-act relic from the West End of another era. But Rattigan's cultured explorations of the moral dilemmas of the British middle classes now play in New York as eloquent, even prescient portraits of the dangers of sexual and social repression.
At a time when directors often deconstruct such period scripts with sharper and flashier knives, this thoughtful, quiet production is perhaps insufficiently radical to attract the kind of attention that would support a transfer to a larger Broadway house --- in so many respects, one wishes it had gone further down the revisionist road. But in the hands of a talented director like Mark Lamos, "The Deep Blue Sea" still makes for a highly provocative and thoroughly entertaining evening of theater.
In the tricky lead role of Hester Collyer, a clergyman's daughter approaching middle age but in her sexual prime, Blythe Danner has to avoid any number of traps. Beginning with her failed attempt at suicide, the action in this well-made play revolves almost entirely around Collyer's psychosexual dilemmas. She's already left her loving but dull jurist husband (deftly played by Edward Herrmann) in favor of shacking up with a young and good-looking but morally questionable ex-airman named Freddie Page (David Conrad).
At the play's point of attack, the booze-addled Page has lost interest in Hester's physical and emotional needs, rendering her an outcast in more ways than one. Only the socially disgraced doctor who lives downstairs (played here with broad relish by Olek Krupa) has some understanding of her problems. Why? He's not British.
The dilemma for Danner is to make Hester's frustrations physically clear, even though Rattigan's elliptical period text makes only oblique references to her sexual desires. Given those constraints, Danner walks the fine line between classical dignity and damaged goods with real skill --- her work is elegant yet rough, dignified yet vulnerable.
Lamos is clearly most interested here in the way the Brits of the time (or of any time, for that matter) did themselves in by eschewing desire and honest compassion for social convention. That concept is most clearly expressed in some of the smaller roles. As two neighbors unable to deal with such a bothersome and murky mess as a suicide, the excellent Ben Shenkman and Vivienne Benesch are like a pair of stiff deer caught in the headlights of emotional reality.
Danner's best scenes are with her character's former husband, a man who genuinely loves his ex-wife but whose value system makes him unable to understand her needs or make the changes she desires. Herrmann is excellent in his role.
The production's weakest link is Conrad's performance as Hester's lover. Superficial and disconnected from his character's troubles, Conrad does not bring the necessary complexity to the part.
Regardless of any director's concept, the script still creaks in places. Characters leave the single-room setting for no reason other than to make it possible for two other people to talk alone. And the whole affair echoes the neatness of the social style of behavior the script is presumably attacking.
But these kinds of contrivances actually come off as charming here --- and one can certainly see in this script the seeds of the revolution that was to overthrow British drama just a few years down the road.
In many ways, "Deep Blue Sea" has a complicated appeal. There's a sense of security watching a play that holds its audience firmly by the hand for its three brief acts, while at the same time the production undermines the very genre of the work. The elegance of an old-fashioned evening is coupled with the incisive honesty of a modern approach. All in all, it's a pleasant and surprisingly revelatory 1990s cocktail.