Beware The Pigeon In the Mine

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The New York Sun

On Friday night, there was a bizarre moment at the end of “Nothing,” the chilly adaptation of Henry Green’s equally frosty novel now on 59E59’s main stage. As the Citizens Theatre company took its bow, a stuffed, dead pigeon tumbled across the floor.

The play takes place in a dim world of restaurants and half-lit parlors, with every surface cushioned in either black or deep red velvet. Against it, only hands and faces show up very clearly, so perhaps the pigeon had simply gone unnoticed until the full light of the bows. Perhaps it was a prop gone AWOL off some other set. But my impression was of a bird, suddenly dead, fetching up at the well-shod feet of the cast. Maybe the stifling air of Green’s drawing-room politesse is killing off local birds – as poisoned air does with cuckoos in the mines.

“Nothing” is essentially an atmospheric exercise, like the book before it. Three or four postwar couples (it depends on the permutations) revolve lazily around each other in English society, moving in the eddies of scandals long past. Jane Weatherby (a glassine Sophie Ward) drifts with the others, but her seemingly aimless circles are those of a shark, bumping and nosing and herding its prey.

Jane’s old friend and one-time paramour, John (Simon Dutton), looks like easy meat. Tan and fit, he’s nonetheless a slow-mover, and he allows women to treat him like an incapable infant. His current lover, Liz (Andrea Hart), has the crass nerve to show off her physical desires, which makes her both a bit of boozy fun and a wide target for the socially conscious Jane. Once John and Liz’s relationship is in Jane’s sights, only a couple of well-placed barbs, and a constant refrain of “Don’t you think, darling?” can bring it to its knees like a downed elephant.

Jane herself seems to have no amorous wants, but her fighting spirit is aroused by her son, Philip (Pete Ashmore), announcing his engagement to John’s daughter Mary (Candida Benson). By getting John back into her pocket, Jane can destroy the younger generation’s match, simply by dripping her icy vitriol into the appropriate ear.

It’s never entirely clear why Jane wants to destroy the young people’s liaison, although she certainly drops a bagful of dark hints about their possibly being half-siblings. Her reasons could just as easily be her shock at Mary’s choice of clothes (she does wear a lot of unbecoming headbands) or the couple’s lack of adequate income. For Jane, maintaining a lifestyle could be even more appalling than the possibility of incest.

Green’s story is nearly all stageready dialogue, so adapter Andrea Hart has an easy job of it. The little dodges and evasions, the constant “sweet old things” that will sound familiar to readers of Evelyn Waugh, are all ripe for the picking in his swift little novel. In fact, the dramatic version seems slower, and it unaccountably has an intermission. Jane Weatherby’s assault-by-chit-chat would work much better if she weren’t interrupted just as she got up a head of steam.

Fans of Sophie Ward (think back to “The Young Sherlock Holmes”) will enjoy her fine-boned nastiness here, although it isn’t actually the piece’s main attraction. While Jane and John and Liz are throwing darts at one another, it’s the quieter, sadder affair going on between Philip and Mary that hits the bull’s eye.

Director Philip Prowse keeps Ms. Benson and Mr. Ashmore seated at the back, nearly swallowed by shadows, waiting by their big, unresponsive phones. The evening certainly succeeds at making us feel the way they are wasted – their attempts at enthusiasm crushed by the older generation. But it’s an odd, disconcerting way to spend a show: Constantly hoping for the stars to shut up and let the littler lights shine.

Until July 2 (59 E. 59th Street, between Madison & Park Avenues, 212-753-5959).

The New York Sun

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