nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 16, 2005
In Broken Journey, poet-playwright Glyn Maxwell transports the characters and plot ideas that Kurosawa used to create Rashomon to present-day America, where their singular circumstances have little to do with objective truth and everything to do with that most subjective of experiences, love.
The play unfolds in a police station and, in flashbacks, in a remote roadside area in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. There, a businessman named Andre and his high-spirited girlfriend Chloe run out of gas, make some half-hearted attempts to find help (his idea) and some other half-hearted attempts to enjoy the spontaneous thrill of the moment (champagne on the grass, dancing, lovemaking--her idea). Troy, a coarse ex-hippie on a motorcycle, turns up, and then some dangerous things happen: Andre winds up handcuffed to a telephone box, Chloe and Troy have sex (whether its consensual or not depends on who you choose to believe), and Andre ends up dead, knifed in the belly.
Troy, Chloe, Andre (via a medium named Mrs. Millwood), and a passerby (Paul, a paperboy) all relate their own versions of what happened. We are left to sift through the conflicting perceptions and observations and try to decide what really transpired.
However, as I've already suggested, Maxwell is more concerned with emotional truths than objective ones: he doesn't care whether Andre was killed by Chloe or by Troy or if he committed suicide (and he says as much in a program note); instead, he's interested in why Andre has dropped the "w" from the end of his name and why Chloe is so ready to flirt with a stranger in the middle of a woods and why said stranger (Troy) can morph from Chloe's ally to Andre's in the space of just a few minutes. Maxwell has given us a play filled with contradictions and asks us not to worry about sorting them out, but rather to sift and search through the mire and seek whatever we can find there about essential human nature. Aspects of love—from physical lust to deeper feelings of compassion—and aspects of love's opposite, which I would argue Maxwell believes to be loneliness: these are what's on view in Broken Journey, for our contemplation and edification.
Now, I have to tell you that, all that said, I didn't care for Broken Journey: the very damaged hearts that it trades in held little interest for me. Putting it another way, I didn't find much to like, empathize with, or ultimately understand in Chloe, Andre, and Troy; Maxwell's crafted them to represent much that is base in our lives, and I don't cotton to that, I admit it. I cannot, for example, watch an actor handcuffed to a pole for an hour or more without feeling it in my gut—after even a few minutes, I start to get really squeamish. (Who has handcuffs in their pocket or glove compartment, anyway? I'm sorry, but I just don't know these people.)
I also found some of Maxwell's poetry jarring. The dialogue (in very contemporary blank verse) mostly does succeed in replicating everyday speech in a heightened fashion, but there are places where I just lost the thread of what the characters were talking about, so mired in obscure imagery did they become. And one aspect of the writing proved a continual distraction: Broken Journey wants to be set in America (and indeed Troy and Andre talk very specifically at one point about being fans of the Giants and the Packers football teams). But the language is never American English but British English: what we'd call towns are referred to as villages, for example; Troy calls Andre "squire" repeatedly. Why was this disconnect allowed to persist?
Broken Journey does mark the return to the NYC stage of Craig Smith and Elise Stone after almost a year's absence, and it's a definite pleasure to see them (though I myself would have preferred to see them as characters I liked and understood better). Michael Surabian, with Smith and Stone a founder of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, is very good as the conflicted and possibly cuckolded lover Andre. Newcomer Joe Rayome is similarly fine in the smaller role of Paul, the newsboy who happens on the events of the play. But Sheila O'Malley, as the psychic whom the police enlist to help them solve the mystery, never quite convinced me that she was authentically channeling Andre's spirit.
Ted Altschuler's staging is stark and efficient; I found myself especially riveted during the psychic's rendition of events, with Surabian's pained and pathetic characterization of Andre really front and center (this, for what it's worth, was the version of the story that felt "truest" to me). Tony Mulanix's lighting design serves the piece very effectively.
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble will give us another look at Maxwell's work later this season with Wolfpit. Your reaction to Broken Journey may well help you decide whether or not to look in on that piece next spring.