Too Brief a Treat

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Posts, Theater.


There are certain
plays or films that cast so strong a spell upon you that to read anyone else’s
dissenting opinion is akin to being punched in the stomach. That, at least, is
my reaction to hearing people dismiss Brief
Encounter
on Broadway, one of the most heartbreaking, gorgeous, witty love
letters to romance and the theater that it has ever been my privilege to see.

Yes, this is
going to be that kind of review, in which all critical discussion flies out the
window in favor of unabashed gushing. What else can one do, though, in the face
of director Emma Rice’s vision? Rice has taken a beloved, five-hankie classic
(the original British film, written by Noel Coward, was itself an adaptation of
Coward’s play Still Life) and
transformed it into a kaleidoscopic look at love and the stage. This isn’t merely
the transferring of a film to stage; Rice’s Brief
Encounter
becomes something of a ritual enacted daily by a group of people
who need to feel the pangs of love in order to exist in a hurried, harried
workaday world.

By heightening
the repressed emotions of the stiff-upper-lip classic (characters frequently
break out into Coward songs, which are refreshed by new arrangements or music
by Stu Barker), Rice has given us a lambent new show about the irrational pull
of love between strangers Laura (Hannah Yelland) and Alec (Tristan Sturrock),
who meet by chance at a railroad station café and carry on a largely emotional
affair from there. Every theatrical trick in the book is on display in service
to the story, from obviously fake slaps to characters bursting into song (never
has “A Room with a View” been so haunting) to the most imaginative moments in
the show, when the actors perform in front of a film screen before disappearing
through the screen to reappear, larger-than-life in black and white. When Alec and
Laura say goodbye outside a train, and then we see Alec suddenly appear in the
train on the screen before us, waving goodbye, every emotion we’ve been taught
to feel during that train station farewells in movies and novels flood over us.

Of course, Rice’s
staging works as well as it does because she has assembled such a sympathetic
cast. Everyone seems both part of the late-’30s milieu and outside of it,
commenting on it, much as the lower-class characters are on the periphery of
Laura and Alec’s affair, silently observing as they enjoy their own much more
robust romances. But even as Annette McLaughlin, Dorothy Atkinson and the
adorable Gabriel Ebert make us laugh with their comically heightened characters
(including Atkinson’s hilarious performance of “Mad About the Boy”), the jokes
only point up the impossibility of Laura and Alec’s affair. Laura and Alec are
living in a funhouse, but they’re incapable of finding it funny. Audiences,
however, will be laughing through their tears.

Brief Encounter

Through Dec. 5,
at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. (between Broadway & 8th Ave.), 212-719-1300;
$37–$127.

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