Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
The major advantage of Peter Nichols' "The National Health" is that it allows Arena Stage to show off its large, admirable company in a variety of styles. More than a score of roles are well handled, some exceptionally so, and David Chambers has kept innumerable balls rolling in his resourceful staging. The play will run through Nov. 20.
What Chambers has not done is to edit Nichols' play, a mix of naturalism, satire, social criticism and whatnots. Nichols has included everything in the setting of a men's ward of a modern hospital, including bedpans, catheters and religious kooks. How he does go on and on and on, and how gloriously clever he thinks he is to be so open a thinker.
Nichols, I think, believes he is telling us about the socialized medicine of post-World War II Britain, for his most serious, intellectual moments are devoted to questioning the value of prolonging life. Like his previous and autobigraphical) "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg," "National Health" present several incurables and one young man who finally has smashed his brains in a motorcycle crash, though his body will live on.
If, then, this is meant as a criticism of how loused up Britain's medical system is, Nichols might have done more honestly by his argument by contrasting how the poor and middle-class, which most of his patients are, would have been treated in the old days.
But no, the with-it thing with British dramatists these day, whatever their ages, is to bitch about how terrible everything is. The Folger's "Teeth 'n' Smiles" depicts the futility through the crackup of a band given to dope and alcohol, its author a generation younger than Nichols.
However, "The National Health" doesn't really tackle what's promised at all. Again following the immensely effective, mocking tone of "Joe Egg," Nichols does manage to find the bitter humor of men ill or dying. The style here is naturalism and affecting. For richly amusing contrast, there is the interpolated soap opera in which the TV series recurs with some of the hospital personnel in leading, outlandish roles, a clever device which Chambers has staged as cleverly, thanks to the elevated setting of Karl Eigsti.
At the root is the criticism, voiced only by one character but expressed through the situations of others, that perhaps civilization has gone too far in trying to preserve life.
But throughout one has the feeling that Nichols cannot avoid his own ingenious, wordy dramatizing. He can resist nothing, ot the all-too-cheery lady who quotes scripture, not the bumbling chaplin who always arrives too late.
The basic difficulty is that the tricks and situations are not early so original as the author assumes. I don't in the least mind the purposeful shifts of tone; in fact I am rather more than less diverted by them. Yet how Nichols does drone on and on.
This is not the production's fault, for I felt the same when New Haven's Long Wharf company did it in New York, a sense of interminable satisfied-with-one's-own-damned-cleverness.
Matter of fact, Chambers' Arena version I found better played. There is, for instance, the brightly acted orderly Barnet of Jarlath Conroy, who weaves in and out of reality into the soap opera with perky insouciance. Again, the playwright can't help making a villain of Barnet, for in the final scenes he does to demolish an alcoholic's cure, a final twist of his much-used dagger.
For Nichols doesn't seem to be talking about socialized medicine at all. He's on the subject of the despicable human race, the total worthlessness of British traditions, past and present, and the futility of fighting anything. For all the admiration his play has acquired, I find it juvenile, undisciplined and pretentious. The players rise splendidly above it all.