Shocking (adj.) :
1. violent collision, impact, tremor.
2. sudden and disturbing effect on emotions…
3. surprise, trauma – The Oxford Dictionary.
Tryst is a shocking play. To call it a “romantic thriller” minimizes both its virtuoso, Machiavellian craftsmanship and its impact. Two protagonists who might easily have been formulaic are idiosyncratically faceted, evolve in an unpredictable manner, reach an unforgettably nuanced, histrionic crescendo (some of the best writing I’ve seen on the stage) and find “resolution” with a thunderbolt. Whew! Every time you think you’ve got a handle on what’s happening, there’s subtle redirection.
It’s 1910. The two characters begin by speaking to the audience in turn, unaware of one another’s existence. The attractive, raffish George Love (Mark Shanahan), has spent his life seducing women, robbing, and abandoning them. “I’m never cruel… I always go through with the formality of the wedding night and leave them smiling.” Between victims and down on his luck, he’s haunting the London streets looking for a plain face with an air of emotional hunger and signs of income or a nest egg.
Adelaide Pinchin (Andrea Maulella) is just such a woman. Extremely thin and drawn, dressed simply, but wearing an expensive brooch (left her by an aunt with 50 pounds she has sequestered). Adelaide works in the back of a milliner’s shop where the unattractive are kept out of sight. A brittle, repressed soul, resigned to her appearance, she wears no rouge and pulls her hair back without softness. Someday, she muses, she’ll use the money to visit Venice. Until then, she lives with her parents and sews.
George moves in on Adelaide with the focus of a Stealth Bomber. He’s charming, self effacing and has the cleverness to work into his history of lies, minimal, but insufficient income for supporting her. She does not find this an impediment. Within days, they’re married and on honeymoon. He’s convinced her both to be secretive about their elopement and to bring the bankbook so her name might be formally changed. All that remains to complete the pattern is sharing a bed. Much to George’s surprise, Adelaide is not only resistant to his charms, but petrified.
From here on, nothing goes as planned. Searing disclosures, exceptions to usual behavior, and plot surprises ensue.
Andrea Maulella’s galvanizing portrayal utilizes the sharp, quick birdlike movements of a creature who thinks it’s always in danger. Her eyes dart, perch, focus, and dart. With acute timing, she credibly embodies Adelaide’s resignation, fear, self loathing, hope and strength. The arc, though necessarily lurching, is seamless and superb. Her revelatory eruption will make you cringe. This is a remarkably raw and courageous performance.
Mark Shanahan’s honey-tongued George is irresistible. Even thwarted attempts at intimacy raise stage heat. Personifying his character’s robust confidence, he manages never to allow George to regress into cliché. Severe internal conflicts are played with crude power , intelligence, and terrific emotional potency. Scrupulous control is exercised so that when changes occur, we believe both source and outcome. Shanahan has one speech where George comes full circle from allowance, through acceptance and pleasurable agreement back to doubt and finally horrified denial. It’s as astonishing an acting turn as it is surgically deft dramaturgy.
Joe Brancato’s direction is filled to the brim with textural dynamics. His two characters fill every corner of the set with their authentic, differentiated, and focused presence. No action is unmotivated, no reaction unfounded. Open wounds are exposed with palpable conviction, enough emotional particulars to elicit horror but not so much that the audience experiences something so operatic it’s larger than life. It’s compellingly watchable. A bravura piece of work.
Michael Schweikardt’s set, Alejo Vietti’s costumes and Martin Vreeland’s lighting work integrally with one another to create visually evocative ambience. Johnna Doty’s sound design was particularly skillful-supportive, illustrative, yet non-encroaching.
Playwright Karoline Leach is also an actress. Her creation of beautifully economic character specific dialogue lies partially in experience. She has a fine turned ear for varied rhythms of exchange and adroit timing in the peeling away of a many layered story. Her profound psychological comprehension is the heart and guts of the play.
All of which is to say, Tryst is smart, wrenching, whizz-bang entertainment.
Tryst by Karoline Leach
Directed by Joe Brancato
Starring Andrea Maulella & Mark Shanahan
The Irish Repertory Theater132 West 22 St.
212-727-2737 or www.irishrep.org
Through August 21, 2011