nytheatre.com review by Di Jayawickrema
November 6, 2010
Featured in the Brits Off Broadway 2010 festival, Personal Enemy is the world premiere production of a 1953 John Osborne and Anthony Creighton collaborative effort long thought to be lost. In 2008, the sole surviving manuscript was discovered in the Lord Chamberlain's archives in the British Library. Thought to be destroyed, this production of sexual and political paranoia in small town America during the time of McCarthyism was ironically suppressed by the Lord Chamberlain when he excised all "offensive" homosexual implications from it before it appeared on the London stage in 1955.
Unfortunately, the play's provocative history proves more interesting than its current, finally uncensored staging. I can understand director David Aula's desire to remain absolutely faithful to a work that never got a fair chance, but standing at two and a half hours, the impact of the message is diluted. As always, McCarthyism proves an interesting concept for the stage; but here, the execution drags.
Taking place over a short period in the home of an outwardly collected, secretly broken suburban American family, Personal Enemy is reminiscent of similar setups by playwrights such as Arthur Miller from the same period. Curiously, the material is not given any unique cast even though it is meant to be viewed through a British lens. In the 1950s, this play may have been an unconscious answer of sorts to Arthur Miller's charge that "British theatre [was] hermetically sealed against the way society moves"—but for me, Personal Enemy does not reveal anything beyond what Miller covered himself.
The action of the play takes place on Anne Hourriere's beautifully realized living room set. The intimate, lived-in space is given an interesting accent by sandbags lining one corner of the room and a semi-transparent backdrop of a Korean jungle before the hallway. These stage elements are not utilized but are meant to suggest how the Korean War constantly informs the past and future of this family.
The play opens to a drawn-out birthday scene for the family matriarch, Mrs. Constant, played by Karen Lewis. The relationships and jealousies are established as we learn that the favorite son of the family, Don, died a hero in Korea; younger brother, Arnie, is "delicate" in a way the audience is meant to understand as potentially gay; and practical sister Carol and her husband are left to hold things together. The underused Mr. Constant is played with understated gruffness by Tony Turner, who gives the only consistently excellent performance of the production. As the situation unravels, we learn that Don was a Communist sympathizer who had a potentially sexual relationship with radical friend, Ward Perry—and now the same scenario seems to be playing out with Arnie. The women in the family, the town, and the government take increasingly vicious, repressive actions against these influences and also self-actualization on the part of the men, who decide they "won't play ball with conformity."
Despite some interesting ideas, like the Lord Chamberlain, I also wish for some excision—not of the homosexual material—but a determined editing out of extraneous scenes that belabor the point of what could otherwise be a powerful play.