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Theatre Review (LA): The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan at the Pacific Resident Theatre

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Terence Rattigan was one of the most successful 20th century playwrights. His plays include Love in Idleness, Where The Sun Shines, The Winslow Boy, Separate Tables, and The Browning Version. At one time three of his plays were playing in West End Theatres that were adjacent to one another. He was a contemporary of Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward and his plays are frequently revived; several have been made into movies. Pacific Resident Theatre has revived The Browning Version. It is a brilliant production in all its many aspects.

The Browning Version is a relatively short 80 minutes. In those 80 minutes we are presented with a professor Andrew Crocker Harris who is being forced to retire after eighteen years in an English public school. In the course of the play we see the destruction of a human being.

First, the headmaster refuses to grant Crocker Harris a pension despite the fact that rules have been bent in the past for other retiring professors. The professor is a dry classical scholar whom the students make fun of and we meet one such student, Taplow, who is trying to get the teacher to advance him to the next grade. We also see him doing an impression of Crocker Harris which the professor witnesses. Later, the boy sees the professor in tears and sends him a translation of Aeschylus, the “Browning Version,” to show his appreciation for the professor.

Meanwhile we find out his wife is having an affair with another teacher. She despises him and tells him that the boy’s gift is merely a bribe. All this is presented in continuous stage action. The result is a heartbreaking study of a human being in ruins. Rattigan capitalizes on the traditional “stiff upper lip” to show us the pain behind the mask. He also shows us a marriage in decay to devastating effect. Yet, the play is gentle, sympathetic, and beautifully written.

A brilliantly written play needs a brilliant cast and director. Pacific Resident Theatre is blessed on both counts. Sally Smythe plays Millie Crocker Harris, the unfaithful wife. It is not a sympathetic role but Ms. Smythe manages to show us the “why” behind her cruel actions. Her reaction to her husband and her loveless marriage set the stage for her betrayal and outright cruelty when she tells him that the boy’s present is merely a bribe to make sure he would be promoted and not a touching tribute to a retiring teacher. She desperately hangs onto her lover, Frank Hunter, here well played by Michael Balsey. When he turns on her for her cruelty to her husband she gets her comeuppance. Justin Preston plays the student with the right combination of ambition, brattiness, and compassion.

But it is the masterful performance by Bruce French as the professor that makes the show the success that it is. This is a role he was born to play and in it he is able to show us a range of feelings, and his every thought, without breaking from the passionless composure. His breakdown is even more effective because he has shown such constraint.

The director of this triumphant production is Marilyn Fox, the company’s artistic director. The Browning Version keeps getting well-deserved extensions and will play at the Pacific Resident Theatre through March 14th. It has already received four well-deserved nominations from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Go see it!

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About Robert Machray

  • theatrecorrection

    Correction: The student’s name is Taplow not Peter Gilbert and is played by Justin Preston not Michael Redfield.

  • Correct as per comment #1. – Ed.

  • Emma Auger

    This analysis is extremely off. The play is not about the destruction of a man, but by how he has already been destroyed and his renewal at the kindness shown by Taplow and Hunter, by his full realization of the kind of teacher he has become, and by the realization that his wife has really been lying to him to make his life worse.