By Robert Israel
J. B. Priestly’s shallow characterizations keep his vision of moneyed skullduggery mundane rather than monstrous.
An Inspector Calls, by J.B. Priestley. Directed by Stephen Daldry. The National Theatre of Great Britain’s Landmark Productions staging, presented by ArtsEmerson at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St., Boston, MA, through March 24.
In the opening scene of J. B. Priestley’s Edwardian parlor thriller, which is receiving a spirited production via a touring company from the British National Theatre, we are taken to the fictional industrial town of Brumley, North Midlands, on an April night, 1912. The place is drenched in mist and rain. Ragamuffin children, darting in and out of shadows, await scraps of of food tossed into the gutter by a charwoman. She will be scraping the leavings off the plates of elegantly dressed diners, glimpsed through windows in a crowded, brightly gas lit room above the street.
Within seconds of the curtain’s rising, the contrast between the haves versus the have nots is graphically portrayed. Playwright Priestly – who premiered his play in the former Soviet Union in 1945 before staging it in his native England a year later – does not hide his choice of socialism over the exploitative nature of capitalism. As you can already tell, he wields a heavy political hammer: his plot centers on revenge, via the doings and un-doings of the indifferent wealthy, who must pay for their pitiless pursuit of wealth.
If this sounds like we are treading on familiar plot ground, well, that’s because, despite the thematic connections to today’s inequitable economic times, the play is essentially a talky and boorish period piece. What gives the show the dramatic life it has is Stephen Dalry’s superb direction. along with the imaginative set designed by Ian MacNeil — a human dollhouse with low ceilings and doors perched above a bomb crater. Picture Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allen Poe’s tale of incestuous moral decay among the decadent upper crust. The attraction is that Daldry and his aide-de-camp MacNeil know how to draw us into this familiar world of amoral privilege from the get-go.
The plot, which has numerous twists before final curtain, centers on the bright tidings being celebrated by the Birling family as they gather in the aforementioned dollhouse to celebrate their daughter Shiela’s (Diana Payne-Myers) engagement to Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin). Croft is the son of a rival businessman, so the talk around the dinner table is of profits and mergers. The planned union has all the makings of a prosperous business deal.
That is, until the arrival of the mysterious Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan), who arrives on stage by traversing the theater corridor, mounting the stage steps and, his back to us, casting a long shadow over all that we’ve seeing and all that has yet to be revealed. Turns out that the Inspector is a bit ghoulish, but my lips are sealed, lest I spoil the proceedings.
Suffice it to say that the goings-on are histrionic: there are scenes of wrangling, finger pointing, shouting, intoxication, wining, and blustering, particularly from Arthur Birling and his trophy wife Sybil (Jeff Harmer and Christine Kavanagh) and their wayward son Eric (Hamish Riddle), who all try mightily to wiggle out of accountability for their misdeeds. There are so many shady dealings here that you would need another play to get at all of this family’s sordid history. The dizzying suggestion – so aptly conveyed through Daldry’s direction – is that we are only getting a peek into what is a great gulf (or is that an income gap?) of mendacity.
Priestly’s shallow characterizations keep his vision of moneyed skullduggery mundane rather than monstrous. There is hardly any humor, and his greedy critters are one-dimensional. What emerges as remarkable, given these theatrical limitations, is how effectively Daldry paces the players and how powerfully MacNeil’s set zips up the pace through the inventive use of gawk-worthy mechanics.
At play’s end a crowd of players — many who have not appeared previously — stand onstage in the wings and gaze at the audience with ashen faces. Have they emerged from the bomb crater, like anemic Morlocks released from H.G. Wells’s Time Machine? Are they the hungry ragamuffins grown, plotting revolution? Their vacant stares are haunting, an eerie final touch to a well-orchestrated production about class breakdown.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.