It’s 1947, and England’s greatest actor, Anthony Roland (played Ezra Barnes), is preparing to star as the title character in a production of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Vivacity Wilkes (Liza Vann), his wife, will play Desdemona.
An actor Anthony befriended while performing in Australia, Peter Finney (Todd Gearhart), shows up in London, and asks to play the conniving Iago. “It’s a role I was born to play,” he insists.
Roland isn’t sure he wants to give him the part, but Wilkes encourages him.
“He’s the hottest young actor in Australia,” she says.
“What are you, his agent?” he replies.
It’s worse than that. Peter is Viv’s lover: They started an affair in Australia, and are planning to continue it in London.
That’s the basic setup of James McLure’s “Iago,” which is currently playing at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, in its New Jersey premiere. But McLure, who died in 2011 (“Iago” was his last work), doesn’t really capitalize on his promising premise.
There’s surprisingly little melodrama. Peter and Viv don’t bother trying to hide their affair, or seem to have any second thoughts about it. And the rehearsals for “Othello” don’t get into the dynamics of that play in any depth, but seem to be there mainly to give Anthony and Peter an opportunity to play some one-upsmanship games, and for Peter — in a tangent that is meant to add some comic relief, but falls flat — to try out his idea of playing Iago as a homosexual with ridiculously exaggerated stereotypical mannerisms.
Anthony and Peter are supposed to be titans of acting, though in the rehearsal scenes (and in an opening segment in which we see Anthony and Viv acting together, in another play), you don’t get that sense. Similarly, Viv never seems glamorous and seductive enough to entice Peter to (1) betray Anthony and (2) put his own career in jeopardy (because Viv and Anthony are such a beloved couple, McLure lets us know, that the theater-going public would surely hate anyone who tore them apart).
The play does have a few things going for it, though.
One is its rhythm. McLure wrote a lot of short scenes, and this gives the play an unusual staccato rhythm that feels a bit different, and refreshing.
Another is the fourth character, Sir Basil Drill (John FitzGibbon), a longtime friend and associate of Anthony and Viv who is hired to direct this “Othello.” (Drill was based on Noël Coward, just as Anthony, Peter and Viv were based on Laurence Olivier, Peter Finch and Vivien Leigh, respectively). The droll Drill observes what is going between his three actors, and accepts it with a world-weary sigh and some witty, withering one-liners.
He’s ultimately the most interesting — and, by far, the most entertaining — character in the play. McLure, wisely, fleshes him out with some scenes that add a sense of the desperate loneliness of his own life, and FitzGibbon somehow manages to make him feel both exotic — an exquisitely cultured creature of the theater, and high society — and real
“Iago” runs through Sept. 25 at NJ Rep; visit njrep.org.