As if there weren’t already enough intrigue, backstabbing and romance going on in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” a new play called “Iago” puts a modern twist on the tale with its New Jersey premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
A four-character drama loosely based on the grand love affair between Lawrence Oliver and Vivien Leigh, it’s set mostly in England from 1947 to 1957, taking us behind the scenes when the play was the thing that mattered the most.Perfect for lovers of old British costume dramas such as “Fire Over England” and “That Hamilton Woman,” “Iago” is by James McLure. He is known for “The Day They Shot John Lennon,” as well as “Lone Star” and “Laundry and Bourbon’’ produced together as “1959 Pink Thunderbird at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. McLure died from cancer in 2011 at age 59.
Liza Vann has helped shepherd the play from page to stage and admirably portrays Vivacity Wilkes, who is married to Anthony Roland (Ezra Barnes) and both are leading actors of the British stage post World War II. Peter Finney (Todd Gearhart) is the younger, handsome and dashing Australian actor (without the G’day accent), who suddenly reappears in their lives. John Fitzgibbon is superb as director Sir Basil Drill and has some of the best lines in the two-hour play: “I don’t read reviews … I memorize them.”
Told through numerous, mostly short scenes, Vivacity decides within moments of Finney reappearing in their lives backstage following a performance — they met him during a theatrical tour of Australia a few years earlier — he would be perfect as Iago to Tony’s Othello and her Lady Macbeth.
They immediately launch into rehearsals and it becomes increasingly clear Finney and Vivacity are rekindling a love affair that began in Australia. Since they are British, it’s all very civilized — until it isn’t.
In real life, Olivier and Leigh began their secret love affair in 1936 when both were married to others. Each left a child behind and were married for 20 years. In 1939, Leigh landed the role of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” earning an Oscar for Best Actress. (It was the same year Olivier appeared in “Wuthering Heights.”) She won another in 1951 as Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Also, while in Hollywood, she managed to have an affair with Australian actor Peter Finch.
But the stage was Leigh and Olivier’s first love and the couple starred, often with Olivier directing. Leigh suffered from bipolar disorder, which strained the couple’s relationship and eventually they divorced.
We see echoes of this in “Iago.” As Finney and Vivacity whisper over post-rehearsal drinks, Tony becomes suspicious. It doesn’t go down well when “Viv” lets him know she thinks of Tony as an older brother. Finney and Tony spar verbally — and eventually physically in a sword fight accompanied by dramatic Errol Flynn-like music. Both actors bring subtle nuances to their fine performances. And we catch a few glimpses of Viv’s illness she no longer can hide.
At times, “Iago” seems to sputter along. Why does Finney choose and to play Iago as a limp-wristed homosexual and why does Sir Basil let him, for instance. If McLure were alive, I’m guessing there may have been some refining during rehearsals.
Under the steady direction of Suzanne Barabas, a founder and artistic director of NJ Rep, the play moves smoothly along. It could not have been easy for Charles Corcoran to design a set that boasts multiple scenes in the intimate space he has to work with, but he carries it off. Jill Nagle’s lights and Patricia E. Doherty’s multiple costumes enhance the production. Merek Royce Press’ period soundtrack is thoroughly enjoyable. I wish a CD of the period music were for sale in the lobby.
“Iago” is performed at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays through Sept. 25. Tickets are $45 and available by calling 732-229-3166 or visiting www.njrep.com.
This review first appeared in the Two River Times newspaper.