WHERE The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
INFO $90; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Smart, grown-up drama with riveting Rachel Weisz
David Hare, extraordinary British playwright of conscience, has created some of the most complex, intelligent, fascinating female characters in modern theater.
His first to make her imprint in New York was Susan Traherne, the disturbing and ultimately disturbed whirlwind at the center of “Plenty,” the wonderfully smart and deeply satisfying drama that opened at the Public Theater starring Kate Nelligan in 1982 before transferring to Broadway. Meryl Streep played her in the movie.
Now “Plenty” is back at the Public and, if anything, the drama about a woman’s journey from wartime adventure to postwar disenchantment seems even more prescient about world politics and trenchant about the dismantling of the psyche of this challenging woman.
Rachel Weisz plays Susan now. She is riveting — febrile, passionate, yet understated — in director David Leveaux’s blazingly confident production, which also stars the excellent Corey Stoll as Brock, the foreign-service officer she marries. But first, we meet her during World War II, when Susan is a brave, then terrified 17-year-old who volunteered to be a courier for the French resistance. The experience was so exciting, so undeniably pure, that nothing in the following years could live up to it.
From there we jump forward to the British Embassy in Brussels, where a very grown-up and independent Susan has a bizarre errand (involving delivery of a dead man) and where she meets Brock, who works there. At least as important is the encounter with the ambassador — played with wavering stiff upper lip by Byron Jennings at the top of his ever-impressive form. This is the person who first marvels at the coming wonders — the plenty — of postwar Europe and what’s left of the British Empire.
Hare goes back and forth through decades of highs and lows in multiple times and places and moods. Leveaux and designer Mike Britton unfold the changes with little more than three tall gray angular walls on a turntable, lights by David Weiner that glow through the walls’ lines and edges, and elegant costumes by Jess Goldstein that define eras with an uncanny lack of cliche.
Weisz, with a heart-shaped face that captures both the lights and the very darks of Susan’s journey, surprises us just as much as Susan shocks her friends and loved ones. Stoll careens marvelously around the roller-coaster of Brock’s life until we can’t decide whether he is Susan’s stooge or her potential savior. Emily Bergl avoids the kooky pitfalls of Susan’s bohemian artist friend.
“We are rotten with cash,” spits Susan, identifying the “death rattle of the ruling class.” But Susan is a woman, not merely a symbol of political disillusionment. When she declares in the flush of her righteous war, “There will be days and days and days like this!” we wish for all our sakes that she had been right.