February 3, 1998: Nagy, Never Land

Royal Court Upstairs, Ambassadors

While its new house remains under construction the Royal Court Upstairs is hiding out in the tiny, nearly vertical reaches of the dress circle of the Ambassadors, which has had a makeover and a dressing down to suit the occasion: upholstered benches in a semicircle rise vertiginously from a semicircular stage built up at the level of the old boxes. How they did it I don’t know, but it works.

This is a serious, weird, and partly wonderful, partly distressing play by a writer with a very distinct voice. A French family that speaks perfect English (aren’t we lucky?) hopes to move out of the doldrums it has experienced for twenty-five years and move to — are you ready? Bristol, to take over a bookstore. The prospect is held out by the owner of the bookstore chain and his wife, and then cruelly withdrawn. Well, I wouldn’t hire these people either; they are trouble. They are all given to flights of fancy, of fantasy, that seem partly self-delusion and partly deep insight into self and others. The daughter, Elisabeth Joubert, heading dangerously close to forty, claims she has a fiancé; but it turns out only to be a porter and men’s room attendant at the local Riviera Casino down the hill — way down the hill; the Jouberts live in a kind of hilltop retreat, remote from the Riviera and fairly remote from reality as well. Her father, Henri, works in a perfume factory (which we see in Act II). The mother, Anne, is an alcoholic who revels in her own dreamy way in her uselessness, is the victim of recurrent nightmares, and feeds the fantasies of the love of her life, her frantic, desperate husband Henri.

The play constantly veers toward violence, though Nagy has the habit of stopping the action just as the blow is about to strike and giving us a stream-of-consciousness explication of inner desire and motive on the part of the potential victim.

Sheridan Morley’s review in today’s International Herald Tribune has no patience with this play — he’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps — but I found the play oddly eloquent and sometimes surprisingly incisive about character, and possessing a focus of treatment not often found in such subjects. Nagy has won a big crop of prizes and fellowships, American and English, and she seems to be someone with a lot to say and finding lots of chances to say it. I’d say, keep an eye out for her.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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