Next Theatre Company

In David Hare’s all-absorbing Knuckle, the one character we never meet makes the strongest impression. It’s 1974 and Sarah Delafield, a 21-year-old nurse in a psychiatric hospital, has disappeared; last seen at a beach at Eastbourne, she left behind a purse containing two first-class railway tickets. That vanishing act sets in motion the fiendish machinery of this complex, hard-hitting morality/mystery play. Hare’s richly written suspense drama chillingly conjures up an amoral world. His goal: to trigger our sympathy for the one person who clearly doesn’t belong in it.

Hare uses the conventions of film noir in Knuckle but undermines them. Yes, there’s a hard-boiled would-be detective whose pursuit of supposedly simple clues leads him into a morass of deceit and corruption. But in film noir the quester usually preserves a battered if embittered integrity; he stands for something above the rot he uncovers. That doesn’t hold in Knuckle, a play that’s both more cynical and more hopeful than film noir usually permits.

The searcher is Sarah’s brother, Curly, who after a voluntary exile returns to England to investigate her disappearance. In the 12 years since he left the land he loathes, Curly has become a prosperous international arms dealer. On the cynical assumption that someone has to do it, he’ll sell ammo to anyone. “I go where there’s a war,” he declares, pronouncing death “the axle grease that makes civilization work.” (Curly resembles Andrew Undershaft, the munitions manufacturer in Major Barbara, but without Shaw’s devil’s advocacy.)

Curly wants to know if Sarah’s disappearance was suicide or murder. He gets involved with Sarah’s roommate, Jenny. Like so many of the other characters, Jenny can supply only part of the truth–she tells him about Sarah’s paranoia and pretentiousness, her bouts of depression and hysteria. (In her frustrated idealism and contempt for convention, Sarah strongly resembles Susan Traherne in Hare’s later Plenty.)

But Jenny can’t explain why Sarah left their father’s home in Guildford. To find out, Curly forces himself to visit his father, Patrick. Long ago Curly felt shut out by this smug merchant banker’s self-sufficiency–his “completeness” and his “quality of self-control.” Curly envies the bloodless success that makes this impenetrable “pebble” so serene. Curly’s old feeling of insufficiency returns when his father complacently calls Sarah a petty rebel who never knew happiness till she threw it away. (Oddly, the one time her father respected her was when Sarah stole some bank notes and pasted them neatly on a wall, as if to show her contempt for his cult.)

His father’s dismissal of Sarah’s disappearance is one more proof to Curly of the man’s “genius for mislaying [his] children,” his ability to transfer the pain he feels to other people. Above all, his father’s unflappable conviction that Sarah was murdered by some street bum leaves Curly deeply suspicious and troubled.

But gradually Curly sacrifices his missing-person investigation to a growing respect for his father’s acumen and the plush insularity of his respectable office in the City. After the noisy guns Curly trades in, the smooth quiet of a fortress like Lloyd’s holds a strong appeal. And after all, the differences aren’t vast: in his arms deals, Curly always avoids contact with real soldiers, just as Patrick neatly overlooks the poor. For father and son both, victims are best dealt with when reduced to abstractions.

It’s at this point that Hare suddenly thickens his plot–with quicksand. just as in the film Chinatown, the main character and audience feel the ground shift beneath their feet. In one stroke Curly uncovers a host of ugly revelations–blackmail, a predatory real-estate scam, even the murder of an attack dog–and of course they also explain Sarah’s disappearance. All shed light on his father’s cryptic credo: “Life is a racket. . . . The horror of the world today is that there are no excuses left”–evildoers can’t persuade themselves they’re anything else. Removed from this contagion, Sarah and her surrogate Jenny seem, if only by a process of elimination, the play’s one hope.

Brilliantly achieving a sort of audience guilt by association, Knuckle slowly draws us into the moral infection it indicts–until the only way out is to connect with the one character who got out.

Assembled by the artistic team who gave the Next Theatre Company its first-rate production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, this Chicago premiere is the ideal setup for Hare’s scare tactics. Eric Simonson’s taut, no-nonsense staging–with perfect casting and every emotion literally on the money–solidly energizes an already taut play. As this intricately crafted thriller sucks us deep into its dirty deals, Knuckle creates a sort of moral vertigo; as in a Brecht play, its moral center is always offstage, one reason the play may not let you go for weeks to come.

To prepare for Curly, Stephen Trovillion must have taken a tour through the lower depths–and come up cold and a bit scared but sinisterly convincing. In Curly’s hesitation while snarling “I need nothing”–in everything–Trovillion powerfully undercuts his character’s nasty quest for an amoral completeness. James Deuter as Patrick, the finished product of the same squalid search (a sort of male Margaret Thatcher), stunningly conveys the rancid elegance of life’s respectable bullies.

Playing Jenny, an uncorrupted woman who can read men like a bad book, Holly Wantuch pulls off a difficult balancing act. Jenny’s a demanding role: in effect she must keep alive the possibility of shame by straddling the moral gulf that separates Patrick’s disgust with the world from his daughter’s pity for its victims; she must also show Curly what he’s losing, just when he thinks he’s ahead. Wantuch hits both marks. Jeremy Piven ably plays the pivotal role of Sarah’s boyfriend, a socialist journalist who in Patrick’s scheme of things plays his part only too well.

Simonson finds both the right sound for the play (impeccable accents and Larry Hart’s aural design, which eerily suggests the play’s polarities by contrasting verismo arias with gunshots and saxophone riffs) and the right look (Robert G. Smith’s menacing iron-mesh set, which resembles a chain-link fence, stuffed with sodden autumn leaves). The result is the perfect physical equivalent for the trap Hare springs with a vengeance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.