The current play at the Brattle, Henri Rene Lenormand's "He and She," may strike some people as a tragedy of near epic proportions, but I'm afraid I can't go along with that. To me it seemed a dreary, overwritten, and sententious bit of claptrap. The play follows a company of penniless French actors on a tour of the provinces, and illustrates at length how their sordid existence goes from bad to worse. Playwright Lenormand's worst is pretty bad; for the hero it includes malnutrition, sleeplessness, alcoholism, and frustration--capped by a bad case of laryngitis.
Jacob Ben-Ami plays the hero of this expedition into misery. He is a playwright who is supposedly a genius, but who for a great many reasons never gets anywhere. The only important reason seems to be that Lenormand is determined to make him, along with everyone else in the play, an absolute failure. Mr. Ben-Ami's performance wrings the last ounce of emotion out of the part. His acting is too often convulsive--there is no shortage of arm waving and posturing. It is only fair to record, however, that Mr. Ben-Ami got a batch of bravos from a part of the audience that evidently admired sheer energy on the stage more than I do.
Ruth Ford plays the actress-wife of the playwright. She starts off with a quiet, sensitive portrayal of a woman who has a fairly rational enjoyment of life. But Lenormand is out to get her, too. Miss Ford is a fine actress, and it is not her fault that the sincerity of her performance forces her to whine like a whipped cur with a post-nasal drip for long stretches toward the end of the play.
Most of the lesser characters of this gloomy melodrama are skillfully played by members of the Brattle company. Albert Marre plays a director with effective, quiet irony. Robert Fletcher plays a composer who is a fine comic creation in the first scene and an intensely serious fellow in the tenth. This may be inconsistent, but Fletcher is enjoyable anyhow. Thayer David struts and declaims and is entirely amusing as a ham actor.
But the few comic scenes and parts that Lenormand has written seem to have crept into the play by mistake. His thesis, which is finally stated explicitly near the end, is that humans love life, and for that reason life kills them. This is an interesting and tenable idea. But in his attempt to prove its truth, he heaps one unbearable emotion on top of another. The bloody last scene (which happens to be the thirteenth) kills off the hero and heroine. M. Lenormand has reached the worst of his worst. There is nothing more to say. One last, unbearable emotion, and the play ends with a gasp.
John Boyt has designed several suitably drab settings, almost all of which feature peeling wallpaper and cracked plaster. Mr. Ben-Ami does a fairly good job with the direction, but he should never have taken up with a play that chiefly inspires one to throw things.