nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 30, 2010
Brief Encounter begins before the lights even go down, while audience members are still making their way to their seats. Suddenly, a person in what looks like a bellhop's uniform appears, walking down one of the orchestra-level aisles at Studio 54. Others follow. As soon as I saw the first, I realized that these were cast members; this is a mod environmental sort of show. Soon, a half-dozen of them cluster in a corner near the stage, under one of the boxes, and begin to perform a song...very softly. So softly that from row F I couldn't hear any of it except the bass line. I could see them singing and playing instruments, but I couldn't hear them, and I wondered why.
After some applause (from, I presume, patrons who could hear them), they reassemble on the other side of the stage (house left this time) and repeat the routine, probably with a different song. This time, because they were somewhat closer to me, I was able to barely make out some of the music.
Next, two people in stage makeup and 1940s-style attire walk briskly down the aisle—our leading characters, I immediately intuited, and I was right. They sit in the front row of the orchestra section and as soon as they do, the lights finally go down and what looks like the credits for an old-time movie start to unfurl on the curtain-cum-screen that is draped across the proscenium. "Noel Coward's Brief Encounter" it announces, to the strains of what may well be the actual soundtrack of the 1945 film that inspired this show. And then, our leads rise from their seats, recite some dialogue that you instantly realize comes from the climax of the movie, and then one of them walks onto the stage, through the curtain (i.e., "through" the movie screen and "into" the movie—a reversal of Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo gambit that would feel cleverer if Allen hadn't done it better 25 years ago).
I describe these first moments of Brief Encounter in such detail because I think they give a very clear sense of what the entire piece is like. One element is serious mystification: I think of myself as a pretty savvy theatregoer, but I still don't know what those bellhop-ish uniforms, for example, are supposed to represent (are they movie ushers? members of a Salvation Army band?). Most of the play unfolds in a place that I eventually concluded is supposed to be a coffee shop in an urban train station, but darned if I could tell what it was by looking at it, because there's a piano propped up against the counter and a several-piece orchestra just a few yards away offering near-continuous music. It's not just that Neil Murray's set design, which also includes a pair of enormous mobile stanchion-like towers, isn't meant to be taken literally, but that director/adapter Emma Rice doesn't find a way to make it to clearly delineate location or place.
Which brings up the second key element in Brief Encounter, which is Rice constantly (metaphorically) jumping up and down and saying "look at the new clever thing I've thought of!" Though there's a strong and compelling story to be told in this play—one that Rice speaks lengthily and lovingly about in a dense program note that compares Coward's work to both an allegory for what it was like to be gay in England in the 1930s and the ancient tale of the Seal Woman—Rice seems much more interested in calling attention to directorial choices. In addition to the musical numbers, this Brief Encounter has slapstick comedy, puppets, multimedia effects, self-conscious/recursive fourth-wall-breaking and re-building, and even, in one place, aerialism. It seems to be designed to please folks with short attention spans; those in search of coherent story-telling (or, more to the point, those in search of a coherent and respectful telling of Coward's famous story) will not find what they're looking for here.
Now I need to put in a word about the cast: though I mostly disliked Brief Encounter, I have the greatest admiration for the hard-working players on stage, especially Dorothy Atkinson and Annette McLaughlin, who play, respectively, a waitress named Beryl and the snobbish manager of the coffee shop—their talents seem to be endless, and each of them gave me moments of surprise and pleasure. Atkinson sings beautifully and has a very funny scene as an old woman with a tiny dog on a leash. McLaughlin does a Cyd Charisse move that we don't see coming during one of the songs.
And all of the ensemble members who double as supporting players and musicians/singers are fine during all of the musical segments (once they reach the stage and can be heard): in addition to Atkinson and McLaughlin, these include Joseph Alessi, Gabriel Ebert, Damon Daunno, Edward Jay, and Adam Pleeth.
Tristan Sturrock has surprisingly little to do as the leading man, Alec. Hannah Yelland overacts breathily, in the manner of Carol Burnett doing a parody of a movie like Brief Encounter, as leading lady Laura.
This show annoyed me greatly—as I watched it and then, later, as I thought about what it signified. Because apart from being a prankish and gimmick-ridden stunt, I don't know what it's supposed to be about. It's not a sincere retelling of Coward's screenplay, or a deconstruction of it, or a parody of it. It wants to eat its cake and have it too by pretending to care about the romantic story at Brief Encounter's heart while simultaneously revealing it to be hollow and hackneyed. Why do artists fetishize cultural icons like this? And why does an organization like Roundabout Theatre Company want to use its (relatively) scarce resources to present work that's both derivative and devoid of any kind of substance when so many worthy American artists are making new work that's neither of those things?