In its fifth summer residency at Atlantic Stage 2, the Potomac Theatre Project, now known as PTP/NYC, offers its usual cruel array of unseasonal entertainment. The company’s typical July fare includes two or three shows compassing murder, rape, persecution, and suicide—all at odds with the sun-drenched weather, unless you’re the sort who thinks man’s inhumanity to man perfectly complements a chilled rosé. You’d never accuse this company of lightness of subject or of touch. Perhaps next summer they can put something truly shocking on the bill—a revival of 42nd Street, perhaps, or an early Noël Coward comedy.
But PTP/NYC boasts two compelling inducements to descend four stories to the Atlantic’s chill underground space: the playwright Howard Barker and the actress Jan Maxwell. Maxwell said in a recent interview that she admires Barker’s way with “very strong, unsympathetic women who struggle with their personal and political lives.” She takes on one here in 1983’s Victory: Choices in Reaction. In 1661, Susan Bradshaw travels the land gathering up the pieces of her quartered husband, a casualty of the English Civil War (quite unlike the American one, save for all the mustaches).
Strangely, this is a comedy, albeit of a violent, queasy sort. It even has a happy ending, in which Bradshaw, the limbs of her dead husband, and what’s left of her new one—a former cavalier, deprived of his tongue and his wits after a session on the rack—set up house in Suffolk. And it’s all likely a scurrilous analogue for Thatcherite Britain. How’s that for laughs?
The director, Richard Romagnoli, strives in deliberate fashion to communicate the decadence and cruelty of the early Restoration. In the interstices between scenes, “Anarchy in the U.K.” blares and actors knock over flats and chairs. Of course, Barker’s script isn’t subtle either, and his points about how catastrophe brutalizes the body and soul aren’t understated. Witness Susan’s description of her new life: “We must crawl now, go down on all fours, be a dog or a rabbit, no more standing now, standing is over, standing up’s for men with sin and dignity.”
Polemical writing and heavy-handed direction ought to make for a long evening. Yet they don’t. For all his dialectical truculence, Barker is a fluid and intensely visceral writer, and listening as he gets his teeth into a scene is a vigorous pleasure. There’s pleasure in watching Maxwell, too, in a fierce and unglamorous performance as a woman who bears all—rape, beatings, starvation—without even the comfort of political mission or religious consolation. Robert Emmet Lunney, as the cavalier who pursues her, and Alex Cranmer, in a variety of roles, are the other sensations in the 12-member cast.
Also fine is Steven Dykes, who plays the former secretary of Bradshaw’s husband. Dykes works as a playwright, too, and PTP/NYC presents the U.S. premiere of a pair of his plays collectively titled Territories, directed by Cheryl Faraone. (Neal Bell’s murderous Spatter Pattern, directed by Jim Petosa, rounds out the lineup.) Thematically, the halves of Territories provide a fine fit with Victory. They run rather colder, but offer similar concerns—treason, torture, and everyday betrayal. Yet Dykes lacks Barker’s linguistic facility, and there’s a stale self-seriousness to these plays that Barker would have known how to undercut. For the good of the season, perhaps these Territories should have been ceded.