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'The Browning Version': Terence Rattigan lives at Pacific Resident Theatre

December 13, 2009 |  8:20 am
Browning version

Looking for a drama that will provide psychologically complex characters, sparkling dialogue and a resonant emotional payoff, all packaged in an intriguing plot that takes less than 90 minutes to unfold?
Terence Rattigan’s “The Browning Version,” now receiving an ace production at Pacific Resident Theatre under the direction of Marilyn Fox, is the play for you. My interest was piqued by Philip Brandes’ Times review, in which he praised Fox’s “pitch-perfect staging” for the way it “nails the emotional delicacy” of a work that I had consigned to a charming antique shop of dramatic curiosities.

Let me report that the play is still hale and hearty in production. The principals are uniformly excellent, especially Bruce French, who plays Andrew Crocker-Harris, the fearsomely persnickety classics teacher who’s about to bid adieu to the school, where he has tyrannically taught boys to read Aeschylus in ancient Greek for the last 18 years. French captures both the professional precision and personal opacity of the man, whose marriage to Millie (an uncompromisingly terrific Sally Smythe) turned out to be less a union of hearts than an agreement of mismatched adults who realize their mutual mistake too late in the game.

Three members of the supporting cast deserve to be singled out: Orson Bean, who plays Dr. Frobisher, the school’s politically slippery headmaster; Justin Preston, who plays John Taplow, a student whose future lies in Crocker-Harris’ unforgiving hands; and Michael Balsley, who plays Frank Hunter, a faculty member whose humanity cannot be gauged by his moral lapses.

I have a soft spot for Rattigan, whom I first encountered in a graduate seminar on modern British drama. We read “The Browning Version" and “The Winslow Boy,” plays that, along with Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” and “Hay Fever,” were seen as targets of the subsequent Angry Young Men Movement fomented by John Osborne and company.

Rattigan’s ability to spin a compelling yarn is sometimes held as proof that he is indeed a relic. Silly logic, especially given the way his work continues to crop up unexpectedly. “Separate Tables” remains an acting perennial, and David Mamet’s 1999 film of “The Winslow Boy” demonstrated the play’s tensile strength to hold its own against another artist’s overpowering style.

As “The Browning Version” reveals, it’s foolhardy to underestimate Rattigan. He may not be brazen like the fulminating dramatists who succeeded him, but he has a way of pointing out some very unflattering characteristics of the middle class, which flocked to his plays in the mid-20th century. (The playwright’s gay sexuality no doubt gave him a unique vantage on the well-bred society that made him a very wealthy man.)

His reputation stands as a master storyteller. Yet to praise him for his superb craftsmanship without recognizing the subtly daring vision is to do a disservice not just to Rattigan but also to his generations of fans. Their tastes may be traditional, but they admire incisive intelligence, even when it’s aimed at their own hypocrisies.
“Reading Terence Rattigan’s ten collected plays is an experience not unlike reclining on the bank of a suavely trickling stream in hot weather,” theater critic Kenneth Tynan once observed. “One basks, stretches, is lulled by the swift, interminable murmurs; one’s reflexes are neutralized, and life pauses.”

And in those pauses, difficult truths are gently dropped. “The Browning Version” is a consummately satisfying theatrical outing. But it’s also a subliminally disturbing one. Rattigan understands what audiences think they want as well as what they don’t know they want.  And the secret to his success is that he provides both.

--Charles McNulty 

"The Browning Version," Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 20. $20-25. (310) 822-8392. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Photo: Sally Smythe and Bruce French. Credit: Vitor Martins