An Exceptional Production of Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art”


It would seem impossible that 75 year old Alan Bennett could write another great drama (“The History Boys”) but that he did with his latest creation “The Habit of Art”.   Theatre Rhinoceros is currently presenting his latest masterpiece at Z Below through April 13th.  This is a wonderfully and sometimes naughtily humorous play that is also genuinely and unexpectedly moving.


The two hour and 30 minute comedy drama  is a “play within a play” about two very interesting personalities’ poet W.H. Auden and famous composer Benjamin Britten meeting in the rhymester’s Oxford quarters in 1972. The scene opens with a group of actors who are staging a run-through of a new play called “Caliban’s Day” based on Auden’s “The Sea and the Mirror”.  The inset drama focuses on the poet just after he’s returned from a long exile in New York. Also on stage are the playwright, stage manager , her assistant, a teenage boy singer and an actor to play a rent boy. Auden is long past his poetic prime and he is a passionately eccentric scruffy alcoholic hooked on sex with young rent boys. He has hired a rent boy so he can fellate him before supper.

 The inner play begins with a visited by young journalist Humphrey Carpenter, the real life writer who would go on to be his biographer. At first this young newspaper person is mistaken for the rent boy. This becomes a comic tour de force by Donald Currie playing Auden. The scenes of the “play within the play” are frequently interrupted by reminders and arguments, by the actors excruciating about their roles and the stage manager soothing the entertaining self-doubting cast.


The second is the meeting of his erstwhile collaborator, friend and psychological protégé, the composer Benjamin Britten.  They have not seen each other for twenty five years. He has come to seek advice from the poet about his upcoming opera “Death in Venice” since it concerns an older man’s infatuation with a young boy. He is anxious about the opera and his fear that it may be an act of self-revelation since he also has a thing for young boys but has never had sex with them. Auden desperately wants to become involved in the libretto.


John Fisher as assembled a fine cast to play the various roles. Donald Currie is outstanding as the unconventional Auden.  He makes you care about the character’s frailty and dried up talent while also playing an actor who can’t remember his lines and hates the way Auden is presented.


John Fisher is superb, too as the pained, prissily fastidious Britten. He offers a prevailing echo of the tormented Britten. Tamar Cohn as the stage manager and Craig Souza as Carpenter are magnetic in their roles. Michael DeMartini is delightful as the frustrated playwright.  Justin Lucas gives an exceptional performance as   Stuart, confused the rent boy. He gives a sterling speech at the end of the play when he complains “I want to get in. I want to join. I want to know” after hearing all of the intellectual repartee between the leading characters.  Rounding out the cast is 14 year old Seth Siegel who has exquisite vocal cords as the Boy Singer.


John Fisher direction is sharp and he keeps the audience equally interested in both the rehearsal process and the portrait of Auden and Britten.  Scenic Designer has designed a fine detail set of the cluttered Oxford apartment of the Auden while Alicia Bales has given all of the actor’s fine English accents especially the cockney enunciation of Justin Lucas as the rent boy.


“The Habit of Art” runs through April 13 at the Z Below, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco.   For tickets call 1-866-811-4111 or on line at