By Amy J. Barry
Theaterworks takes the audience back to Edwardian England with Tryst, a psychological drama/love story written by British playwright Karoline Leach that debuted off-Broadway in 2006.
Joe Brancato directs the Theaterworks production. He also directed it in 2011 at New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre with the same cast:
Andrea Maulella as Adelaide Pinchin, a Plain Jane milliner (she makes hats) and Mark Shanahan as George Love, a womanizing conman who loves ‘em and leaves ‘em at the alter after robbing them blind.
But Adelaide proves to be a lot more than George bargains for and the twists and turns in the plot keep the audience guessing who’s really running the show.
Calling Tryst a thriller, as it’s often referred to, is somewhat deceptive -- there is no dicey physical violence or particularly frightening scenes.But Maulella’s and Shanahan’s truly superb acting under Brancato’s searingly focused direction keeps the viewer breathless and engrossed and invested in both the characters and the outcome.
The play begins with Adelaide and George speaking directly to the audience, filling us in on their backgrounds and individual stories. Shanahan is a perfect pick for his character -- handsome in a younger Paul McCartney kind of way with wonderfully expressive eyes. He describes women as “prey” and “its” and then rationalizes, “I never hurt anyone. I always give them a good time. I spend the night with them and I always leave them smiling.”
Maulella keeps us on our toes as Adelaide, buttoned-up, strange, full of little surprises. She works in a milliner’s shop, informing us, “We all got something wrong with us. That’s why we’re all in the backroom.”
The actors then begin interacting directly and the audience is absorbed into the story. George is on the hunt and quickly discovers that Adelaide’s aunt left her 50 pounds and a little antique broach. He begins to woe her with fictional tales of his war adventures and a bouquet of flowers he picked up in the cemetery. Adelaide doesn’t question why such a handsome man would be attracted to her -- and seems to be buying his lies, hook, line and sinker. Or maybe she isn’t as naive as she seems?
George gets Adelaide to agree to a secret marriage and tells her to meet him at a seaside rooming house and “bring a nightie, soft and silky…and your bank book.” All could head toward the inevitable unhappily-ever-after ending, but the plot thickens with nuance.We find out that Adelaide loathes her body, had been emotionally abused by her father, and as a result is bulimic and fearful of sex. When George tries to kiss her, she offers him tea and a game of cards. When George hears Adelaide’s tale of woe, he gets angry.
“There are only two kinds of people in this world -- the takers and the took,” he says. Is he talking about her father or himself? Does he know? George is getting more invested in the relationship. He can’t help but feel empathy for Adelaide and her situation. He makes her look in the mirror and acknowledge her soft skin, her pretty eyes. George panics as his emotions begin to override his simplistic logic. Meanwhile, Adelaide becomes more self-assured and courageous -- she is obviously no chump. Has she figured George out?
Therein lies the beauty of the script. Are the characters’ responses sincere? Are they falling in love? Or is it all part of a carefully crafted master plan? And if so, who’s in charge? Suffice to say, the ending is quite a surprise -- if you haven’t seen the play before, you probably won’t see it coming.
Michael Schweikardt’s well-worn, early 20th-century boarding house bedroom and Alejo Vietti and Thomas Charles Legally’s Edwardian attire and exquisite hats set the mood, coupled with Martin E. Vreeland’s dreamy lighting filtered through smoke, reinforcing the lack of clarity about what’s really going on.
Tryst at Theaterworks is a solid, finely crafted performance that reminds us of what film can never outdo or duplicate -- and why it’s well worth supporting live theater.
Tryst continues through Sept. 9 at Theaterworks, 233 Pearl Street in downtown Hartford. For tickets call 860-527-7838 or online visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.
This review appeared in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.