“I don’t care about being happy anymore. I just want to be at peace.”
Tolstoy wrote that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Timeless, that. In the newest play by the very talented playwright Torben Betts, Invincible, two couples—Oliver and Emily, Dawn and Alan—meet not-very-cute as new neighbors in a small North England town.
Emily and Oliver are posh, solidly upper middle class expats from London who have spent their adult lives immersed in art, culture, and severely left-wing politics. She is consumed with the idea of the plight of the working class, even if she doesn’t know anyone like that. Dawn and Alan are actually among working class, former teenage sweethearts who, after twenty years, share a too settled, too bland, too predictable life together. Too bland for Dawn, at least, who dreams of something more but has never really left the small town, or even the street, where she was born.
Emily Bowker and Alistair Whitley
In a hilarious first act, it seems the two families couldn’t be more different. It’s often the culture clash that makes things so funny, watching as quirks and foibles lead to revelations and . As events unfold we find that they have for more in common than they would like.
There are many great moments in Invincible, but in particular Betts does a wonderful job of connecting his layered, complex, damaged characters on multiple levels in unexpected ways. Each character is an individual and every performance is pitch perfect.
Emily (Emily Bowker) is happy to play the part of the enlightened truth seeker and champion of the underdog even though everything about her speaks to the privilege that she claims to despise. In truth, she doesn’t understand the first thing about the plight of the poor. She admires the idea of the proletariat lifestyle but not the proles. She fancies herself a intellect and is wound so tight it feels like she could snap at any minute. Bowker’s performance is excellent; she’s absolutely insufferable.
By contrast, Dawn (played by the always wonderful Elizabeth Boag in her third year and fourth performance in the Brits Off-Broadway series) is incredibly likable, though she doesn’t have the social skills one develops in a big city. When she explodes into the room with a burst of operatic bombast, she’s a breath of fresh air in a tight, red (charmingly inappropriately revealing) dress. She’s dying to make a good impression, but soon realizes it may not be worth the effort.
Where Emily works hard to be a “good” person with debatable success, Dawn is a naturally good person, but without the social or scholarly privileges afforded Emily. They are both deeply dissatisfied with their lots in life.
Graeme Brookes and Elizabeth Boag
As for the cowed Oliver (Alistair Whitley) and the boisterous and fashion-challenged Alan (Graeme Brookes), they just want their wives to be happy. They don’t know how to make that happen, but they both really, really want it to. Oliver tries as hard to please Emily as Emily tries to be righteous and indignant on behalf of the working class. He endeavors find the point of understanding they have lost over the years. He recognizes their disconnect and craves a return to easier times.
Alan doesn’t realize how disconnected he and Dawn have become, but as soon as it’s pointed out he understands that it will take a lot of emotional work on his part. He cherishes and feels thankful for his wife, not necessarily seeing her for who she is but rather what she looks like and how well she looks after their kids.
When it comes to the class structure and privilege, all can agree on one thing: If you’re poor, you’re screwed. Emily and Oliver know it in theory, but their station makes them able to stay distant and logical about it. Uninvolved unless they feel like getting involved. Dawn and Alan have no choice. They live it every day, and when they suffer it doesn’t take a lot of university courses and sociology keywords to know why. We also know why, and it’s heartbreaking.
Photos by Manuel Harlan
Top photo: Emily Bowker, Graeme Brookes, Elizabeth Boag, and Alistair Whitley
Invincible is a rare treat, a lovely, funny, smart and poignant piece of theater.
59 East 59th Street
Through July 2, 2017