First Nighter: 8 Plays Worth Seeing in London Now

Common wisdom stateside about theater here is that it's all first-rate. Not always so. Like New York City there are good productions and bad productions, and on any theater-going spree a fan makes the results can vary from generally good to so-so to disappointingly poor. The rambling I've done this trip, however, has ranged broadly, as the following round-up of offerings outside the National Theatre and Shakespeare's Globe attests:

The Master Builder--Matthew Warchus's fourth production as Old Vic artistic director, following Kevin Spacey's departure, is an eccentric-looking (set by Rob Howell) version of Henrik Ibsen's 1893 opus that must have had more meaning for audiences then than now, at least for me. The tale of Halvard Solness, who's approaching the end of his tether as a builder earlier of churches and then non-spiritual buildings, as he deals with his wife and mother of his two dead children, Aline, and intense groupie Hilde Wangel, still strikes me as near hysteria. The mitigating factor here is the staunch playing by, in those roles, Ralph Fiennes (always remarkable on stage), Linda Emond and Sarah Snook.

Uncle Vanya--Director Robert Icke's inspiration, realized by designer Hildegard Bechtler, is a simple wood frame set that revolves ever-so-slowly. The effect, at the Almeida, is that the barely perceptible movement transmutes into time as it proceeds tediously. This heightens the sense of unbearable tedium in which Anton Chekhov's memorable characters must function. As the boredom about which they complain--in rants that are anything but boring--spectators get a heavy dose of what it's like to be forced into enduring the unendurable on a daily basis. Using his own adaptation, Icke takes everything more slowly than many productions of this Chekhov classic. It clocks in at three hours 15 minutes (three 10-minute intermissions), during which I didn't look at my watch once. That's perhaps the greatest endorsement to be lofted its way. Negotiating the shabby furnishings in (more or less) contemporary clothes, the actors are extraordinarily good. Paul Rhys as Vanya (here called John), Tobias Menzies as Astrov (here called Michael), Jessica Brown Finlay as Sonya and Jessica Kirby as Elena lead the phenomenal troupe.

Escaped Alone--Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett) looks through the open door in a high fence on a pleasant afternoon and sees three neighbors at the very beginning of Caryl Churchill's Escaped alone, at the Royal Court. Invited in, she joins the conversation, which the devilish playwright turns into a masterpiece of small talk. Every once in a while the colloquy stops, the stage goes black--but for the rectangles of framing orange lights--and Mrs. Jarrett steps forward to report on the devastation an unnamed society is facing. After she runs through several calamities, the fizzy lights switch off, and Mrs. Jarrett is once again talking trivialities with Sally (Deborah Findlay), who fears cats, Vi (June Watson), who some years earlier stabbed her husband in supposed self-defense, and severely timid Lena (Kika Markham). Eventually, each woman has a monolog revealing that underneath the vapid patter is a psychologically wounded soul. Churchill is writing about suppressed female anguish, and Mrs. Jarrett's in-one recitations, terrifying as they are, can perhaps be interpreted as not that much worse than what commonplace women contend with every day. The play, then--directed with finesse by James MacDonald and acted with great nuance--may be short in length, but it's long in reverberations.

Nell Gwynn--Jessica Swale's highly recommended work, introduced at the Globe last summer, has transferred to the West End and the Apollo, with only one cast change. The title character is now played by the popular--because she deserves her popularity--Gemma Arterton, more or less direct from Made in Debenham, the musical. At its heart, Nell Gwynn is a romantic comedy, with the lovers being prostitute/orange girl-turned-leading lady Gwynn and Charles II (David Sturzaker). One night at the theater she catches his eye, and he catches hers, and the rest is, of course, history. Gwynn wins the king's affection, because she intuitively knows how to speak truth to power. Their long-lived affair isn't the only thing on Swale's mind, though. She also includes many satirical scenes sending up the 17th-century theater world. She even has a hilariously nerdy John Dryden (Nicholas Shaw) scribbling with his quill. Leading man Charles Hart (Jay Taylor) is the actor who teaches Gwynn everything she knows about being on stage. (Off stage, she needs no guidance.) The miracle-working Christopher Luscombe directs on the sumptuous Hugh Durrant set and in the sumptuous Durrant costumes. Additional scene-stealers are Michelle Dotrice as a pre-Thelma Ritter dresser and Greg Haiste as the male leading lady whom Gwynn replaces. Featured is a Charles II spaniel named Oliver (Charles's joke on Oliver Cromwell?). This one is sure-fire fun.

Hand to God--There are few contemporary roles more demanding than the nerdy Jason (Harry Melling) in Robert Askins's astounding work, directed--as it was in its three progressing-to-Broadway outings--by Moritz von Stuelpnagel--and again designed ingeniously by Beowulf Boritt. As the play, at the Noel Coward, goes along its darkly merry way mocking organized religion (these figures are Lutherans), the hand puppet Jason designed for the frustrating puppet class his recently widowed mother Margery (Janie Dee) runs takes the poor boy over with diabolical results. What's hilarious one minute turns horrifying the next, but throughout Askins, in going as far as he can, never goes too far. Worked into the raucous and scatological action are irresistible supporting players--Neil Pearson as well-meaning Pastor Greg, Jemima Rooper as Jason's kind friend Jessica and Kevin Mains as raging-hormones Timothy, but it's Melling who irrevocably walks off with the most honors.

The Maids--Jean Genet's 1947 play continues to be revered. The revenge Solange (Uzo Aduba) and Claire (Zawe Ashton) plan on their Mistress (Laura Carmichael, having concluded her Downton Abbey obligations), doesn't go the way they hope. The send-up they do of her as the two-hour intermissionless study begins is ultimately the farthest they get to go before reverting to their oppressed duties. But almost 70 years on, the drama's shock power has diminished enough to disclose that the fiery playwright could have achieved, in much less time, his plan to depict the careless rule owners exercise over those they own. Nevertheless, at Trafalgar Studios, the roles offer these actors much to grab on to. In her close-to-finish monolog, Aduba latches on to a true grab bag of emotions. Jamie Lloyd directs for the Jamie Lloyd Company. Soutra Gilmour designed a box-like set with a patterned floor that hides many secret treasures. It's arrayed with thousands of paper strips that get kicked and swept around.

The End of Longing--Jack is the name Matthew Perry gives the character he plays in his first work, at the Playhouse, but there's reason to think he's based the compulsive fellow, an alcoholic photographer (who doesn't seem to own a camera), on his own drinking life. If so, it's a courageous act that may especially impress his Friends fans. He's outfitted himself with new friends here--best buddy Joseph (Lloyd Owen), Joseph's new girlfriend/drug-company employee Stevie (Christina Cole) and Stephanie (Jennifer Mudge), an unrepentant high-class hooker for whom Jack falls hook(er), line and whiskey bottle. No, not everything that transpires as the couples build their relationships rings authentic, and there's much that echoes the sitcom scribbling with which Perry is very familiar, but under Lindsay Posner's sure direction, there's enough that weighs in as true, meaningful and even funny. The acting is top-notch, and when just before closing the-devoted-to-imbibing Perry offers what AA members will recognize as a committed share, he may be doing something that stretches beyond strict performance.

I See You--In Mongiwekhaya's powerful and frightening 80-minute play at the Royal Court, contemporary South African apartheid is thrown in your face. It's not the now defunct Afrikans apartheid but the new version, in which strata of the black population are in conflict. Buthelezi (Desmond Dube), an officer having issues with his (unseen) wife, violently takes it out on rich law student Ben (Bayo Gbadamosi) through one perilous night. Buthelezi stopped Ben for drunk driving--not what was unfolding--with a white girl who calls herself Skinn (Jordan Baker), although her full name is Yvette Skinner. She's got an ex-boyfriend, James (Austin Hardiman), who arrives from time to time when Skinn is attempting to locate the now missing Ben. Compromised police policy doesn't provide much solace. Ben's standing up for his rights to his captor is repeatedly futile. Actually, futility is a pervasive theme that director Noma Dumezweni underlines effectively throughout a courageous production the Royal Court is presenting with Market Theatre Johannesburg.