A far better thing is a splendid mounting of Harley Granville Barker’s Waste (1907, but forbidden in England until 1936), about what goes on behind the scenes in a British cabinet-elect and how a potential scandal ruins its brightest member’s chances. Henry Trebell, a brilliant, impassioned idealist, is bent on disestablishing the Church of England and turning it into a big and enlightened source of mostly secular education. He is by way of working out a coalition to that effect between church and government. But at a tony house party, this driven man, who lives with an adoring spinster sister and has long suppressed his sexual impulses, falls for Amy O’Connell, the fascinating but highly neurotic estranged wife of an Irish scholar.
They have a brief affair and Amy gets pregnant. Against Trebell’s wishes, and partly because he cares more for politics and progeny than for her, Amy seeks an abortion. Sir Gilbert Wedgecroft, everybody’s physician and friend, refuses; a hack botches it with dire consequences. Sanguine about Trebell and Disestablishment (though for dubious reasons), Cyril Horseham and the members of his upcoming cabinet are relieved when Amy’s husband agrees to avoiding a scandal. But when Trebell proposes to confess and trust the compassion of the British public, all his colleagues bristle, and Horseham axes him. What follows you must find out for yourselves.
With a number of sharply drawn characters, British society is magisterially evoked, and politics becomes as fascinating as it is fearsome. Various aristocratic women round out the picture, which also includes Trebell’s ardently supportive young secretary and his pert fiancée. Under Bartlett Sher’s cogent direction, we get fourteen resplendent performances – I mention only those of Byron Jennings, Kristin Flanders, Brenda Wehle, and Henry Stram – and one stilted one by Pamela Nyberg that does not, however, upset the apple cart. You may glimpse Shaw and Ibsen behind Barker, but such fine plays as The Voysey Inheritance, The Madras House, and Waste stand on their own firm yet adventurous feet, as this elegantly designed production, with especially good costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, amply demonstrates.