After O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, almost any play would be small potatoes, and Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea is no exception. Rattigan, the charmingly witty boulevardier, attempted something deeper here, based partly on a shattering homosexual relationship of his, and it was originally written as such. But the climate in 1952 Britain was not ready for such frankness, so the middle-aged protagonist, obsessed by a younger man’s flesh and tormented by an unreciprocated passion, became a woman. The Proustian strategy does not fully work here, but we must not minimize Rattigan’s mimetic gift: Hester Collyer, who leaves affluence and an eminent jurist husband for a shabby flat and socially downgrading affair, does not register as a contraption.
The obsession that leads Hester to attempted suicide is for Freddie Page, an RAF hero unmoored in postwar Britain. He likes Hester, but is incapable of matching commitment. Sir William, her eminent husband, still loves her and wants her back, yet, tight-buttoned upper-crust Englishman that he is, can offer only his touching but trammeled love. Freddie, at least, can sexually give all of himself.
There is a play here, and, for two acts, Rattigan makes it work. In the third, as Kenneth Tynan was first to note, the author finds himself between the devil and the deep blue sea. Hester, accidentally foiled in her suicide, and foiled again in recapturing Freddie, is headed for renewed suicide. But that makes for pat dramaturgy. It also contradicts Rattigan’s philosophical purpose. So he invents Miller, a disgraced ex-doctor, to help Hester face a life without hope and beyond despair. This switch, neither Rattigan – nor perhaps anyone – can carry off.
The Roundabout revival is elegantly directed by Mark Lamos, and looks correct. Most of the minor characters are well played, except for the crucial Miller, whom the cloddish Olek Krupa flubs. David Conrad just about manages Freddie (no easy task for a young American), but neither Edward Herrmann’s insufficiently English Sir William nor Blythe Danner’s overcontrolled and underheated Hester is moving enough. Back in the Broadway premiere, Margaret Sullavan wasn’t either.