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Theatre in Review: Henry V (The Public Theater)/Replay (DugOut Theatre/59E59)

Top: Zenzi Williams, David Ryan Smith. Photo: Joan Marcus. Bottom: Nicola Wren. Photo: Carol Rosegg

These two new productions don't really dazzle, but each of them features a leading actress who is well worth your attention. Henry V is the latest offering of the Public Theater's Mobile Unit, which takes vest-pocket productions of Shakespeare to community centers, libraries, and correctional institutions, among other venues. This year's entry, Henry V, offers the chance to make the acquaintance of Zenzi Williams, who, in the title role, makes quite clear that she is an actress gifted with a powerful presence and a well-honed classical technique.

From her first entrance she owns the stage, handling the text with ease, even putting her own imprint on the St. Crispin's Day speech, one of the most popular war horses in the Shakespearean canon. Her Henry is a cool, calculating figure, slumped in his throne, appraising his visitors, yet also capable of rousing oratory and fits of anger. Her Henry also has a natural dignity that sets him apart from everyone else in his court. He is implacable, a natural leader, which makes his unstoppable progress on the field of war all the more convincing.

The rest of the cast is equally adept in classical theatre, but they aren't always well served by Robert O'Hara's direction. His biggest error has been to encourage the actors, when they are playing members of the French court, to adopt caricatured French accents that fall somewhere on the spectrum between Maurice Chevalier and Pepé Le Pew. This approach earns plenty of easy laughs, but, among other things, it diminishes Henry. It also renders the French scenes nearly incomprehensible. The one exception to the general vocal babel is Patrice Johnson, as Montjoy, the French ambassador, whose exaggeratedly courteous manner is really another form of contempt. When she faces off against Henry, the production acquires some authentic crackle. Among the other members of the cast, David Ryan Smith (a memorable Malvolio in the Mobile Unit's Twelfth Night last season) makes a fine scene partner for Williams as Exeter, Henry's uncle, who is well versed in statecraft, and as the Governor of Harfleur, who, rather than fight Henry, pragmatically opens the doors of the town to him.

At a running time of one hour and forty-five minutes (with cuts), O'Hara's direction is certainly pacey, but it's hard to detect a coherent point of view. For example, he turns the scene in which Henry courts Katharine, the French princess, into something close to sexual assault. (At one point, Henry nearly strangles her.) I suppose you can treat the scene this way -- Katharine is a kind of spoil of war, and more than one staging has taken a neutral, even negative, view of Henry -- but the director has laid no groundwork for it, so it feels needlessly jarring. Mobile Unit productions are known for their spare design values, but Clint Ramos, the costume designer, has color-coded the characters, giving the English red accessories and the French, blue.

Henry V might be a tougher sell than, say, Twelfth Night to an audience not too familiar with Shakespeare, which may explain O'Hara's rather flattening directorial approach. Still, I'm not sorry to have seen this Henry V, and I very much hope that The Public will find room for Williams at the Delacorte Theater and in its main stage season.

W, the protagonist of Replay, is a young London cop who is experiencing a crisis, if she would stop for a moment to think about it. Having fled her home in the North, she has established herself on the Metropolitan Police; she is now bucking for promotion to sergeant. As the play begins, she is insisting that her recent bout of nausea was due to a plate of dodgy prawns at dinner. In fact, she and her partner have stopped at a house in Camden Town to speak to a woman whose husband has killed himself, a discussion that is causing W physical distress. Repairing to the bathroom because she feels unwell, W runs into the dead man's daughter, who asks, "Why would he want to leave me?" In response, W becomes violently ill.

No, it's not the prawns: The deceased's house was once the home of W's brother Jamie, now dead, with whom W has plenty of unfinished business. Adding to her upset, her mother has unearthed a years-old cassette tape of a birthday message from Jamie, to which W haltingly listens, fighting off a battery of painful memories.

Replay is a brief (hour-long) piece that hangs on an implausible twist and heads for a sentimental, too-easy conclusion. It seems to exist mostly as a calling card for Nicola Wren, who wrote and stars in it -- and if her writing is more professional than inspired, she is a thoroughly expert actress, creating in W a character who clearly thinks she can bustle her way past trauma, a plan that proves increasingly difficult to implement. We feel the young W's adoration of her older brother, especially during a spree in the Piccadilly Square games emporium The Trocadero. She lays out vividly the terrible dream she has about Jamie, which definitively contradicts her daytime persona of brisk competence. The personal odyssey that follows, culminating in a second encounter with the little girl whose father is gone, is, to say the least, unsurprising, but Wren knows how to the take the stage and keep our attention. I look forward to seeing her again.

George Chilcott's direction is sensible, steering the action away from any hint of the maudlin. The design values are, rightly, pretty basic, with the exception of Max Perryment's sound, which includes, most crucially, the sound of Jamie's voice on that tape, along with such effects as street traffic, a boiling teakettle, a washing machine, ambient train station noise, and the song "Sit Down," by the British band James. The Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 is a great place to check out new talent. I wouldn't be surprised if we hear from Nicola Wren again, and soon. -- David Barbour

(1 May 2018)

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