‘Lost’ Star Fox Pumps Pecs, Sienna Stiffens Lip: London Stage

Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams in "In a Forest Dark and Deep" by Neil LaBute. The siblings rehash old rivalries. Photographer: Hugo Glendinning/Kate Morley via Bloomberg

Reading a title like “In a Forest Dark and Deep,” playgoers might reasonably expect storms, sinister happenings and gothic revelations.

U.S. playwright Neil LaBute’s new two-hander in London instead offers overwrought hooey and a plot twist signaled with bells and whistles.

LaBute directs the production, set in small-town America. College lecturer Betty (Olivia Williams) asks her brother Bobby (Matthew Fox from television series “Lost”) to help pack up books from her cabin in the woods. The stuff seems to have belonged to her tenant, who has disappeared suddenly.

When a character mentions both a missing person and her dented front fender in the first 10 minutes of a play, don’t you find yourself hoping against hope that that can’t possibly be the plot’s main MacGuffin?

Keep your hopes if you like, and believe in Santa Claus too. I’ll just say that the predictable denouement lumbers forward with the haste of a very old, and very dead, sloth.

Betty turns out to be a bit of a liar. Bobby, a stubbled working-class tough guy, keeps needling her to tell the truth about old family arguments. A storm rattles at the window panes. Lightning flashes.

Alas, it isn’t meant to be comedy-horror. It really is meant to be a dark psychodrama about terrible secrets and guilty behavior.

Slippery Betty

Williams invests the slippery Betty with more detail and range than the character deserves, and her performance proves to be the evening’s saving grace.

Fox stands around with his shoulders back and his pecs straining, just like he does on the poster for “Lost.” When he wants to show he’s troubled or perplexed, he strokes the stubble on his jaw, or on his head. That’s what tough guys do.

If any potential playgoers have stubble themselves, they’d better start stroking it. They’ll need to be tough to get through this one. Rating: *.

The hysterical recriminations start early in LaBute’s play and continue, with diminishing returns, to get louder and more hysterical. It couldn’t be further from Terence Rattigan’s gripping Royal Air Force drama “Flare Path” (1942) starring Sienna Miller, and directed by Trevor Nunn.

British understatement is the order of the day. A bombing raid is described as “a bit of a shaky do.” “Bad luck about old Johnny,” is the comment on a colleague presumed to be dead. Upper lips don’t get any stiffer.

Hotel Lover

Patricia (Miller), a beautiful actress, is married to Flight Lieutenant Teddy Graham (Harry Hadden-Paton). Her lover (the superb James Purefoy) turns up at their hotel near Teddy’s RAF base. He begs Patricia to leave with him.

She’d married Teddy on a whim, and is willing to go. Then Teddy confesses that his stiff upper lip is a sham. He’s sick with terror every time he flies on a bombing raid.

The scene in which he crumples with shame and nausea, crying out his need to be comforted, packs a mighty dramatic punch and Hadden-Paton gives an electrifying account of it. Rattigan had a nose for the fault lines of the British psyche, and he sniffs them out here like a bloodhound.

If Sienna Miller isn’t in Hadden-Paton’s league, she gives a watchable performance, full of restraint and delicacy.

Sheridan Smith (Olivier Award-winning star of the musical “Legally Blonde”) adds comic color as a local barmaid who marries a Polish count in the RAF. She gives a fine performance, yet the padded-out subplot doesn’t grip the emotions like the blistering central love triangle.

Thankfully, that grips hard enough to make a great evening. Rating: ***.

Mischievous Ghost

Noel Coward’s comedy “Blithe Spirit” was written the year before Rattigan’s drama, and treats the fear of death in quite a different style. Clipped vowels, cocktails and waspishness are the coping mechanisms here.

Skeptical author Charles Condomine is researching seances, and hires the batty medium Madame Arcati. She accidentally conjures up the ghost of his skittish first wife Elvira, who proceeds to play havoc with his marriage to Ruth.

It’s deliciously sharp stuff, which casts a cold witty eye over the institution of marriage. Thea Sharrock’s slick production, set in a beautiful Art Deco living room, keeps the ball in the air, and the odd greenish glow that appears around Elvira whenever she’s on stage is a tour-de-force of theatrical lighting.

Alison Steadman gives a hilariously dotty performance, and even brings a touch of flirtatiousness to headmistressy Madame Arcati. Robert Bathurst (“Downton Abbey”) is delightfully unflappable as the sophisticated Charles.

Ruthie Henshall and Hermione Norris are the former and current wives, and occasionally let their characters sound shrill rather than clipped. It just takes the edge off an otherwise amusing revival. Rating ***.

“In a Forest Dark and Deep” is at the Vaudeville Theatre. Information: http://www.nimaxtheatres.com +44-844-482-9675; “Flare Path” is at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, http://www.trh.co.uk or +44-845-481-1870; “Blithe Spirit” is at the Apollo Theatre, http://www.nimaxtheatres.co.uk or +44-844-482-9671.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:

****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless
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