I Have Been Here Before
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 27, 2005
Someone I know recently remarked to me that Shaw's plays seem like the old man just having debates with himself; I don't know if that's so, but it certainly feels like an apt description for J.B. Priestley's I Have Been Here Before. Presented (for the first time in New York since its premiere 60-odd years ago) by Pearl Theatre Company in an excellent staging by Gus Kaikkonen, this suspense drama is an excursion into mysticism. Priestley the playwright behaves here like a man obsessed with a new toy, building a startlingly sophisticated melodrama around two theories, since lost to the ages, one from a fellow named J.W. Dunne, the other borrowed (his word) from one P.D. Ouspensky. He bothers, in the published version of the play, to disavow belief in these: he's playing a game with himself here, seeing if these ideas that obviously fascinate him can hold water and hold an audience. We're eavesdropping on the match and get to decide who wins.
I call it a draw: the notions that inspire I Have Been Here Before—that it's possible to see future events clearly, and consequently to alter them, because we live our lives over and over again—feel to me like fanciful wishful thinking, like in the movie Groundhog Day; and what's more, I think Priestley didn't really buy them either. But he managed to create a really enticing, entertaining thriller out of them. The Pearl is only to be congratulated for bringing it out of mothballs and back on stage, where it belongs.
In a room filled with clocks—the drawing room of a Yorkshire inn called the Black Bull, to be precise—six disparate people converge for a strange, life-changing weekend. The inn is run by a gentle old soul named Sam Shipley and his fretful daughter Sally Pratt, who came to work for her father after her husband died a couple years back. Both are made uneasy by the appearance of Dr. Gertler, who arrives unannounced, asks whether a woman married to an older man and another younger man are staying here, and—when the reply is negative—wonders whether it's the wrong year. He disappears; the phone rings, bringing news that the three ladies from Manchester who were supposed to be coming down for the weekend have to cancel; then it rings again—a wealthy married couple, Walter and Janet Ormund book two rooms. He's quite a bit older than she. A younger man, meanwhile—the personable schoolmaster Oliver Farrant—is already in residence at the inn. Suddenly, Dr. Gertler's enigmatic mumblings seem to have real significance. And of course, it's not long before he's back at the Black Bull, ready to take the last available room.
So what's going on? I Have Been Here Before is the kind of play whose secrets would be revealed only by an evil theatre reviewer; you'll have to go to the Pearl to find out. Your interest will not flag, I don't think. The only hint I can give is the one Priestley gives, in the title.
The characters are delightful, and they're brought to vivid life by the six-member cast, all of them Pearl regulars. Robin Leslie Brown is funny and touching as Sally, a widow before her time now fussing about her dad, the inn, and her son Charlie, who is away at school. Sean McNall makes Farrant quite the charmer, but doesn't neglect the darker shades to his character that are occasionally revealed when he lets his guard down. As the sometimes menacing, always mysterious foreigner Gertler, Dominic Cuskern is suitably enigmatic and mercurial.
Rachel Botchan gives us a beautiful, deep, and fascinating Janet Ormund, struggling mightily to be a good wife to a man who seems to resist her at every turn. Dan Daily is commanding yet sympathetic as her mate, the overbearing businessman Walter Ormund; he captures the Type A arrogance along with the substantial and genuine pain beneath the surface. He only seems completely relaxed in the rare moments when he's enjoying the company of his splendidly uncomplicated landlord, Sam (beautifully played—nay, inhabited, with Spencer Tracy-ish ease—by Edward Seamon); he, with us, takes real pleasure as Sam reminisces about his wedding day:
SAM: We wor wed early an' then I took her down to Leeds—eh, an' it wor a grand day an' all—Wharfedale shining an' smiling all t'way down—an' Yorkshire wor playing Surrey at Headingley, an' so o' course we went—an' Brown an' Tunnicliffe an' F.S. Jackson knocked them Surrey bowlers silly—an' then we went back to big high tea at Queen's Hotel. Eh, what a day!
If Priestley's characters have anything to teach us, Sam does. Ormund replies, for once as completely at peace as Sam always seems to be, "Yes, that would be worth having again." And Sam says: "Well, I says to him, 'Nah is that day coming round again?' An' he says, 'Yes, it's on its way. Same bright morning,' he says, 'same blushing girl,' he says, 'same sun on t'same fields—everything.' That'll do me, I says."
Ultimately time is both enemy and ally to these people—hence all the clocks. Sam has the right idea.
Kaikkonen stages the piece admirably, keeping us breathlessly awaiting each new development and revelation for the entire 2-1/2 hours of the play. The production design is masterful, especially Takeshi Kata's detailed set; this is the Pearl—and therefore off-Broadway theatre—at its absolute finest. Priestley's play, a neat discovery, is not going to set the world afire; but it's novel and it's well-crafted and it's performed with the utmost respect and care. I heartily recommend it.