When we see two people on stage in a play, endowed by the storyteller with a romantic reciprocity, we might think for a moment that we want to see these two almost-lovers kiss. But, what we actually want is to see them want to kiss. Need to kiss. Fail to kiss. We want to see them kiss only after they’ve tried everything else, tried not to kiss for as long as possible, until finally, they have to kiss.
Restraint is what thrills an audience most because only restraint can breed true catharsis. And we need catharsis: it’s why we come to the theatre. Creators tell the stories they need to tell; audiences come to witness what they need to witness. And the stories that need to be told and witnessed are ones of longing, of risk, of fear – stories of life. Our stories. We need to see ourselves on stage – restrained for as long as possible, until finally, we have to break through. We deserve to break through.
The Lover by Harold Pinter and Danny and the Deep Blue Sea by John Patrick Shanley are two one-act plays that operate in restraint. In The Lover, a British bourgeois couple, Richard and Sarah, tries to spice up their stale marriage by role-playing an adulterous affair. For a majority of the play, the couple discusses the affair in a very held back (and very British) way. Even when the “lover” enters the scene in the script, there’s no gratuitous petting or snogging. The dramatic tension is at its height when the characters want to touch but don’t. And in the case of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, the tension is most palpable – and most appreciated – when Danny and Roberta, two malcontents from the Bronx, both of whom might simultaneously explode with rage and implode from loneliness, want to say “I need you” but can’t.
Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker play the two different couples in The Lover and Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, in an in-rep production directed by Ariel Francoeur and produced by The Seeing Place Theater. Both Cronican and Walker are capable performers with a penchant for the tongue-in-cheek, and each possesses enough confidence to inspire a commanding stage presence. Two able actors, they handle the rich dialogue of Pinter and Shanley with a good deal of awareness and expertise (Cronican’s speeches as Roberta in Danny are especially astute), but what they don’t do is convince their audience that these are characters who need to express love but, whether because of fears, insecurities, or troubling pasts, can’t bring themselves to do it. For all of Cronican’s and Walker’s aptitude, their performances lack the emotional depth that comes from restraint.
In The Lover, the couple has forgotten how to love one another and now attempts to remember by introducing a third party into their relationship, in the hopes of reinvigorating the romance. Cronican and Walker capture the fun and cheek of the play, but for all of The Lover’s irreverence, there’s an inherent danger in the dramatic action of the piece: these are two people who are desperate to want each other again. The stakes are very high, regardless of the humor of the situation, and if we miss them, we miss the rich complexity of Pinter. Underneath the clever banter is a need to connect, to feel something, to love. But if the actors do not bring that need with them, if there is no vulnerability – and therefore no restraint – then the banter loses its significance.
There is a moment in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea when Roberta abruptly declares that, even though she and Danny never knew each other before this night, they are “gonna love each other.” It’s the glimmer of hope on which the entire play rests. Here are two hardened people who don’t think they deserve love, but who, tonight, are going to try their hardest to get it and give it. In order for such effort to move the audience, we must see them trying and failing – and, more importantly, we need to see what it means to them to fail. There are moments of Cronican’s portrayal of Roberta – when she confesses the “bad thing” she did to her father, for instance – in which she poignantly reveals what failure means to her character, but in Walker’s Danny, I only witness someone who feels sad about failing, sad about being known as “the beast,” but never someone who actually feels like a beast.
The restraint in Pinter and Shanley’s characters comes from their failure: these are people who have tried to be bold, failed in some way, and now, afraid and vulnerable, keep themselves and their failure locked tightly in cages, all the while craving to break free. The more the cages restrain them, the more cathartic it is for the audience to see the moments in which these wild animals somehow manage to wedge a paw between the cage’s bars. Our souls swell with hope at the sight of a possible escape. It is the job of the actors to give us this catharsis. When embodying the characters, the actors must put themselves in their cages and then try with all of their might to escape from them. They must be people who have everything to lose; if they aren’t, then we in the audience have no reason to want them to win.