‘The Habit of Art’ Review: Theater of the Creative Drive

The poet W.H. Auden is expecting a rent boy, not a journalist. So when he opens the door to his home in Oxford, England, to let the much younger man in, it takes a while to clear up the confusion. Once the visitor has explained that he is not there to take off his pants, he commences an interview.

“Are you writing?” he asks the poet.

“Am I dead?” Auden ripostes. “I work. I have the habit of art.”

Such a smooth, substantial-sounding phrase — a bulwark against others’ intrusive questions and Auden’s own self-doubt. Still, he is telling the truth.

In Alan Bennett’s delectably smart, gently moving, sex-spiked comedy “The Habit of Art,” the year is 1972 and Auden is nearing the end of his life. Suspecting that God has rescinded his genius, he keeps writing anyway.

“I have to work, or else who am I?” he says.

All this, by the way, is part of the play within the play in the excellent production that the Brits Off Broadway festival has brought to 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. “The Habit of Art” is partially about an imagined meeting between Auden and his old friend, the composer Benjamin Britten. But Bennett frames it with a band of theater people finding their way through a script that tells this story — or, as he wrote in his diary in 2009, the year “The Habit of Art” made its premiere: “a group of differently fractured people coming together to present something whole.”

Directed by Philip Franks for the Original Theater Company, “The Habit of Art” takes place in a dingy rehearsal hall (the set is by Adrian Linford) where a company is rehearsing a new play. The absent director has left in charge the savvy, ego-soothing stage manager (a wonderfully brisk Veronica Roberts), while the playwright (Robert Mountford) fends for himself, trying to shield his script from tinkerers who would make cuts or additions.

The actor Fitz (Matthew Kelly) is a terrible snob, his dignity affronted by playing Auden — a role that requires him to be stained, stinky, squalid: a great man in unglamorous decline. Henry (Stephen Boxer), as the self-contained Britten, at least gets to look civilized.

In the play within the play, the composer pays Auden a visit, seeking his help, though they haven’t seen each other in decades. Britten is writing “Death in Venice” — an opera about an older man obsessed with a beautiful boy, a theme that echoes in “The Habit of Art” — and it’s not going well.

“I came because I feel so lonely,” Britten says.

“Of course it’s lonely,” Auden reassures him. “It’s new. What do you expect?”

That’s the voice of long experience speaking — Auden in his twilight, yes, and also Bennett, who this week turned 89. The playwright knows too that, in his chosen medium, a creator’s isolation eventually gives way to collaboration: maybe maddening, bickersome and chaotic, but at least not solitary.

Such is the nature of theater. Such are the habits of that particular art.

The Habit of Art
Through May 28 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; 59e59.org. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.

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