Love's essence is always intangible, but it produces substantial consequences. In Abi Morgan's absorbing new drama, which has been given a compelling production by Origin Theatre Company
at 59 East 59 Theatre
, who we are to each other is at the heart of a bruising lifelong dance between three characters.
Lucien was a shy boy who has grown into a overly cautious and haunted young man (Christian Conn) and Anthony (Blake DeLong) is a ne'er-do-well who was struck by lightening when he was six and looks fated to live out a damaged existence under the watchful eye of his old friend.
Morgan underscores the enduring love between the two friends, which crucially runs just a little deeper than the mistrust that occasionally brims to the surface between them. As adolescents we learn that both men once loved a young woman who took her own life. The affection was so deep, the loss so profound, they can barely bring themselves to speak of it.
Instead what they do is go on an annual ritual: Lucien makes his yearly attempt to rehabilitate Anthony by taking him on a back to nature summer vacation. Fresh air, a bath, some new threads, regular meal times - these are the fairly patronizing moves Lucien makes to reconnect with his old pal and his past.
But gratitude and affection share the stage with moments of snarling anger and clearly unfinished business. Morgan knows that the two men, locked in a dance they can not end, have reached an emotional impasse and so she introduces a blow-in in the shape of Madeline (Olivia Horton) a free spirit who works the spot during the summer vacation months.
Left to their own devices the two men have worn themselves out with abstract philosophical speculations about the nature of creativity and destruction, which they at all times seem on the edge of themselves, until Madeline makes all that fine talk concrete through her presence and through recognizing the wrenching heartache that's behind all the smoke and mirrors.
Men, the playwright reminds us, can exhaust themselves with drunkenness and competition indefinitely, and perhaps Morgan indulges them too much in this respect. It is left to Olivia to be the foil and to bring the plays overarching themes of betrayal and redemption into focus.
But along the way the play meanders and then focuses in a way that can prove jarring to the viewer. Each time we find ourselves getting closer to the three characters and the interior objectives that motivate them it seems a philosophical debate erupts that pushes us away again or holds us at arms length. It's a frustrating tic that throws a veil of uncertainty over the proceedings just at the points when you most hope to connect. Morgan certainly seems as interested in experimenting with the plays form as she is in creating compelling characters and although this is admirable artistically it continually undermines the drama onstage.
Director Matt Torney
has created one of the most lucid productions of a new play that I have witnessed in New York in a decade. Torney
strips the stage and the production to their theatrical essence as though to compensate for and clarify the abstractions in the text. In the process he has mined the emotions that propel the three young characters and he has added immeasurably to the depth of this work. Torney's
staging is eloquent, immensely confident and frequently beautiful to look at, coaxing remarkable performances from the cast.
In the end though it's Morgan's curious and reflexive introspection in the text that fails to satisfy. We learn of the private passions that have driven her characters and we come to care for them too, but the plays thematic obsessions consistently trump all other considerations.
Love may be intangible, but after witnessing how it has first leveled and then promised to redeem her three characters, there's a steep human dimension to these engagements that the play demurs.