Curious title, Tomorrow in the Battle. It’s a phrase from Richard III (Act V, scene 3); the partial title of a well-reviewed 1994 novel by Spanish writer Javier Marías; and apparently the English translation of a German war cry. And what it has to do with what’s happening on Ars Nova’s stage, heaven knows. At any rate, to enjoy Kieron Barry’s drama, you’d better love London: there’s a lot of it here. And you’d better have a tolerance for shaky British accents. Patrick Hamilton, as the not-altogether-heroic hero, can’t decide whether to pronounce it “again” or “a gain”; he keeps going back and forth. And Ruth Sullivan and Allison Threadgold, as the women in his life, flatten or broaden their vowels as they see fit, not always consistently.
Hamilton is Simon, an attractive and distinguished heart surgeon with an unreliable moral compass. His wife, Anna (Sullivan), is second-in-command in running Britain’s nuclear missile program, the finances of which are being called into question. And Jennifer (Threadgold) is the emotionally uncertain majordomo to a supposed investment genius, who has a terrible secret. To tell any more risks spoiler territory, but Simon, stood up at the opera by Anna, will meet Jennifer, they’ll flirt, and that will go where flirtations sometimes go.
Also, all three will face career predicament—Simon, when he shows up in the operating room with nearly a pint of scotch in him to operate on a frightened young boy whose heart he’s replacing. Anna will do her best to make the marriage work but keep sexually fantasizing about a colleague of Simon’s, and Jennifer will show up at the couple’s home unexpectedly. Things will not end well, and if you pay close enough attention, you may be able to predict where they’re headed. I did.
Other issues are touched on—self-deception, honor vs. practicality, the quixotic ways of the heart—but Barry doesn’t so much dramatize them as report them. That’s the thing: his three-character play, with two other important characters we never meet, is a series of monologues. Characters, even when in the same room, don’t interact; they face front and tell us what they said to each other and what happened then and how they felt about it. Occasionally this is effective, as when Anna relates the erotic adventures she’s imagining with Simon’s co-worker. And Jonathan Sanford’s musical score does accentuate their feelings nicely. Those feelings, though, mostly stay tamped down. When an actor can only describe rather than interact or otherwise explore, it limits the emotional palette considerably.
So Hamilton, whom director Tana Sirois sensibly has remove his shirt at the slightest provocation, doesn’t get to convey the entire psychological journey Simon is taking. Sullivan’s Anna, heavily into sidelong glances and nervous smiles, only partially gets to exhibit the frustration, conflict, and woundedness she’s feeling. And Threadgold, the liveliest of the three, hasn’t the resources to guide us through Jennifer’s increasingly unhinged mental state. That’s not to say she does anything wrong; it’s that Barry, in confining her largely to narrating, has her in something of a straitjacket. All three of them, in fact.
Sirois stages it modestly, on Chika Shimizu’s barely-there set, often leaving the actors silently sulking near the wings when they’re not the focus of attention. Beth Morgan’s costumes are rather chintzy (a heart on a heart surgeon’s lapel? really?), but they and the actors wearing them are expressively lit by David Shocket. Pinteresque anomie, City of London skulduggery, accomplished people of privilege cheating themselves out of happiness—there’s a full plate here.
In any number of plays around town, writers and directors are finding compelling and original ways of revitalizing familiar situations. Tomorrow in the Battle offers a rare instance of what might be a very interesting story told in a really uninteresting way.
Tomorrow in the Battle runs through Oct. 28 at Theater 511 (511 W. 54th St.). Performances are Monday through Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., and Saturday at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are available by calling (212) 352-3101 or visiting strippedscripts.com.