It takes a really refined actor to get away with mischief onstage, and at the Studio Theatre Ted van Griethuysen is offering not one but two sly turns — both as the irascible British poet W.H. Auden and as the prickly thespian playing him.
As Fitz, the actor, van Griethuysen drily lobs questions that function like little grenades aimed at the playwright. “Author,” Fitz innocently begins his inquiries about some illogic he detects in the script. When the actor gets his way, a kid stealing candy from a rival couldn’t look more satisfied than the beaming van Griethuysen.
Then there’s van Griethuysen as Fitz playing the aged, disheveled Auden, sometimes losing his lines but generally being an imperial wit, albeit the eccentric kind who urinates in his own sink.
Such is the play within a play in Alan Bennett’s mellow and satisfying “The Habit of Art,” which may not hit the rapturous heights of his recent “The History Boys” (gloriously played at the Studio three years ago) but which still gives a good company of professionals lots of delicious insider material to chew on.
The setting is London’s National Theatre during a rehearsal for something called “Caliban’s Day.” A couple of actors are absent, busy with the Chekhov play next door. The director’s out of town. The script has been changed: There is now talking furniture. The rentboy hired by Auden is offering more nudity than is called for. The playwright is baffled.
This chaos is fluidly rendered in David Muse’s U.S. premiere production, with actors neatly trotting back and forth across the disarray of Auden’s book- and junk-strewn quarters (a lovely, sloppy heap designed by James Noone). For high petulance, see Cameron Folmar as the nervous actor playing Auden’s biographer and fretting that he’s merely a device. The add-on material this actor proposes — an unlikely drag turn meant to bring depth to the character — drives Bennett’s play to its looniest moments.
For calm in the storm, there’s Margaret Daly as the stage manager, who gamely pitches in with the talking furniture bits. For steam-coming-from-his-ears pique, look no further than Wynn Harmon as the playwright, who can’t quite believe what’s become of his work.
But then plays will run away from their authors, which is one of the very serious themes Bennett is taking out for a walk in this comedy. “The Habit of Art” isn’t an explosive farce, despite the mishaps and shenanigans; as nearly always, Bennett’s humor is learned and gentle. And the play’s titan, Auden in his twilight, has a bookend figure in the great composer Benjamin Britten.
It seems Britten, known for casting an eye toward his chorus boys, is having trouble with his opera “Death in Venice.” Sexuality has already been put forward via the rentboy — the Caliban among these Prosperos — and now Britten wrestles with whether he’s repeating himself creatively, overworking his tropes about innocence and corruption, in art and in life.
As Britten’s very old pal and onetime collaborator Auden replies to him, Bennett invokes Auden’s “The Sea and the Mirror” (a commentary on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”) and intones the kind of wise lines that brings sense to both of the play’s frames. Bennett is a particularly writerly playwright, and you could call this the play of a lifetime — not meaning it’s his best (his career has stretched from his 1960s “Beyond the Fringe” through “The Madness of George III,” after all), but meaning that it feels very close to the bone.
He certainly knows what he’s giving to performers. Britten is played by the formidable Paxton Whitehead, who also plays an actor named Henry. Whitehead is deeply adrift as Britten and is well-nigh peerless with Henry’s punch lines, and the laughs he gets with dialogue casually dropped while crossing the stage to nowhere are gems. It’s an example of a well-honed habit, like many detailed in this knowing show, on fine display.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by Alan Bennett. Directed by David Muse. Lights, Nancy Schertler; costumes, Alex Jaeger; sound, Veronika Vorel. With Randy Harrison, Matt Dewberry, Alfredo Pulupa, Sam O’Brien, Lynn Sharp Spears, Will Cooke and Leo Erickson. About 2 1 / 2 hours. Through Oct. 16 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-232-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.