Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Brief Encounter


Photo by Pavel Antonov

Adapted and directed by Emma Rice (adapted from Noel Coward's Still Life and the screenplay Brief Encounter). St. Ann's Warehouse. Through Jan. 17.

Aside from Newsroom New Jersey's Michael Sommer, who has an affection for the source material, critics rave about Emma Rice's adaptation of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter. Many critics say this a perfect show for the holiday season and find themselves swept away by the blend of film projections, live action, vaudeville, puppets, and music. A few critics even dare to dream of a Broadway transfer. Note: Two more very negative reviews bring the grade down from an A to a B+.

The Daily News A+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) The most blissfully entertaining and inventive show in town isn't running on or off Broadway. Or anywhere near it, for that matter. It's in DUMBO at St. Ann's Warehouse, where "Brief Encounter" opened last night. Whatever gifts come my way at Christmas, none could make me smile more broadly or longer than this beautifully realized charmer by Britain's Kneehigh Theatre Company.

New York Post A+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Indeed, the director pulls every trick out of the theater playbook: The cast syncs up with projections (shot specifically for the show), supporting characters turn into a singing Greek chorus, actors occasionally sit down in the first row -- as if they were watching their own life unfurl. It's a rare case of a show in which form and content mesh seamlessly.

Variety A+
(Bob Verini) In the hands of Kneehigh doyenne Emma Rice, Rachmaninoff is kept to a minimum as subtext takes centerstage: Upon meeting, the swooning lovers fall backward into the empty arms of other cast members; a posh luncheon morphs into a sensual ballet, with heroine Laura (Hannah Yelland, in a deeply felt performance that brooks no mockery) dangling from a chandelier. Yet it all feels proper, as if Rice had merely turned the Coward fabric inside out to reveal its true essence... "Brief Encounter" is galvanized by ensemble energy. The tea girl (dazzling butterball Beverly Rudd) zooms about on a scooter to vamp cigarette boy Stanley (Stuart McLoughlin), while her boss (charming Annette McLaughlin) wiggles a padded bustle at dispatcher Albert (cheery Joseph Alessi, doubling as Laura's husband). The antics are most surrealist yet grounded in character reality.

Hollywood Reporter A+
(Frank Scheck) Upon entering the theater, you're greeted by movie-theater ushers in period garb who regale you with comic banter and musical numbers. This immersion continues with the show proper, which ingeniously incorporates old-style film images and projections that the characters pop in and out of with abandon. The overall effect is visually dazzling, but the neatest trick is that the technological gimmickry never overwhelms the simple power of the tale.

Newsday A+
(Linda Winer) If "Brief Encounter" is typical of Kneehigh's creations, the process makes a hearty combination of dark expressionism and cartoon delight. The show, which had a successful run in London's West End, includes enchanting sets and costumes that Neil Murray designed for touring. All the words come from Coward, but not all are from the movie. The versatile supporting players transform with larky ingenuity from tearoom staff in the train station to characters with their own individual drama. They are also there to catch Laura (the impeccable and luminescent Hannah Yelland) and Alec (the dashingly sympathetic Tristan Sturrock) as they are literally swept backward off their heels by passion.

Lighting & Sound America A+
(David Barbour) Emma Rice, who adapted and directed the stage version, pursues a risky, two-pronged approach. The scenes between Laura, the quiet, gentle housewife, and Alec, the doctor who falls desperately in love with her, are played with utter conviction, albeit with a pronounced patina of period style. Everyone else is amusingly caricatured, using every theatrical trick at the company's fingertips... According to all laws of the theatre, this should result in an unholy mess of knockabout comedy and soap opera emotions, a clash of tones that cancels everything out. Instead, Rice's methodology provides abundant amusement while casting the central story in a heightened, and remarkably moving, light. It also reveals something essential about Coward, a master entertainer who often packaged darker, more unpalatable truths inside his slick comedies and musicals. Later in life, Coward wrote a fan letter to Harold Pinter, expressing his fascination with how Pinter broke every rule of traditional theatre, "except to not bore the audience, even for a split second." My guess is he'd see what the Kneehigh Theatre is up to, and would wholeheartedly approve.

Backstage A
(Erik Haagensen) Adapter-director Emma Rice remains true to Coward's essence while enlivening the work with songs (some by Coward), film sequences, dance, and even puppets (representing Laura's children). Repeated episodes of stylized movement find a moving physical expression of societal constraints and emotional repression. Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, so important in the film, surges as scenes of crashing waves roll upstage. Interestingly, the text hews more closely to "Still Life" than the film, which is told in flashback, practically eliminates Beryl and Stanley, and cuts back on Myrtle and Albert in order to focus more on the leading couple and bring in other characters. Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock wisely underplay the central lovers. If they miss the detailed subtext of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, that seems intentional: Subtext is expressed here through the above-mentioned devices.

The New York Times A
(Ben Brantley) Isn’t the point of the movie, adapted from Noël Coward’s 1930s one-act play “Still Life,” that its main characters keep a tight lid on loose feelings? What are all these little fantasy explosions — of song, dance and acrobatic movement — that have been interpolated into Coward’s script about the divine misery of not committing adultery? Sounds like someone is taking the mickey out of a love story known, above all, for its veddy good manners. But not at all, my dears. While this production may traffic in the antics of classic stage spoofery, its real raison d’être is to love, honor and obey the spirit of the film that inspired it. It also celebrates every moviegoer who has felt personally invested in that cinema classic. The Kneehigh “Brief Encounter” may be the most exquisite set of fan’s notes ever to take form on a stage. Through musical numbers, film projections and vaudeville jollity it spells out not only what the show’s doomed lovers are experiencing but also what we, who have known them for years, experience whenever we watch them on screen.

TheaterMania A
(David Finkle) Kneehigh has deconstructed and reconstructed the classic film as a marvelous piece of post-modern nostalgia, using mixed media that occasionally allows the actors on stage to walk through a screen only to reappear bigger-than-life in filmed scenes (by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington). More surprisingly, adaptor-director Emma Rice adds enough Coward songs to turn her piece into a new and altogether different kind of musical comedy. Into the bargain, she and her skilled colleagues also pay Coward quite a tribute as a lasting cultural icon.

On Off Broadway A-
(Matt Windman) Tristan Sturrock has a restrained charm as Alec, but it is Hannah Yelland who perfectly captures the mannerisms of old-fashioned melodrama and Laura's feelings of desperate longing and moral guilt... It occasionally feels as if Rice's bizarre theatricality is competing against the intimacy of Alec and Laura's story. But more often than not, the bells and whistles and gags of this whimsical deconstruction serve to open up the story and accentuate its romantic poignancy.

Newsroom New Jersey D-
(Michael Sommers) Adapted and directed by Emma Rice, this Kneehigh Theatre venture reportedly won acclaim in London's West End and on British tour as well as at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre. But I must confess that the supposed charm of the production left me cold in Brooklyn... Unfortunately Rice directs these lighter moments with a heavy hand, encouraging farcical behavior that clashes weirdly against the deep restraint demonstrated by the two leads. Unnaturally stylized staging bits, such as when Laura and Alec literally fall in love or everyone in the lunchroom violently shakes as an express train roars by, prove to be risible distractions rather than anything that genuinely heightens or informs the essential drama.

The Village Voice F
(Michael Feingold) Director Emma Rice, who apparently hates the idea of theater sustaining any narrative interest, takes the play's celebrated film adaptation as her starting point for an unappetizing plateful of multimedia hash that tosses Coward songs, settings of Coward poems, and slapsticky dance routines randomly into this classic piece of stiff-upper-lip romantic kitsch, its scenes rendered alternately in earnest or as over-the-top camp, with giant projections of pounding surf or rushing trains as imagistic commentary. You can't blame the actors and musicians, all clearly skilled at what they do. Why anyone should care about the pointless, gibbering results is a larger question.

Wall Street Journal F-
(Terry Teachout) The endlessly self-reflexive irony of postmodernism can be hard to read, but I also felt at times that Ms. Rice and her youthful cast of cooler-than-thou hipsters were as ill at ease with the thwarted passions of Coward's middle-class characters as were the characters themselves, and so could express them onstage only through the medium of parody. If so, the joke's on them, for this "Brief Encounter" sucks all its fitful life straight from the veins of the far more compelling "text" that it seeks to illuminate. Such are the vampirish ways of postmodern artists, who bite their parents' necks, then turn up their noses at the taste of blood.

The Daily News A+ 14; New York Post A+ 14; Variety A+ 14; Hollywood Reporter A+ 14; Newsday A+ 14; Lighting & Sound America A+ 14; Backstage A 13; The New York Times A 13; TheaterMania A 13; On Off Broadway A- 12; Newsroom New Jersey D- 3; The Village Voice F 1; Wall Street Journal F- 0; TOTAL: 139/13 = 10.69 (B+)


Anonymous said...

Brief Encounter closes on Jan. 3 not Jan. 7

Ted Williams said...

You have neglected to include Michael Feingold's and Terry Teachout's negative reviews.

Linda said...

Thank you, Ted. I didn't leave those out on purpose, but they were not up yet when I collected the reviews and I forgot to check for new ones. I'll add those now.