Firm directing gives ‘Tryst’ strong atmosphere

by David A. Rosenberg

They called them “penny dreadfuls,” those cheap paperbound books so popular in 19th century England. You know the kind, the ones that might begin “It was a dark and foggy night in London” and then go on to a chills-and-thrills tale about damsels in distress, strangers at the window, flickering gas lights and prickly sounds on cobblestone streets. There’s one currently at the Westport Country Playhouse titled “Tryst” and, though it’s hardly a thriller, it does reek of enough atmosphere to provide an intriguing evening.

Atmosphere, in fact, is its strong suit, especially in Joe Brancato’s hands. The director, who guided Karoline Leach’s play both regionally and off-Broadway (where it had the same excellent design team as in Westport), knows what sound, lights and a lot of stage smoke can do for a suggestive work about a rake’s progress.

The aptly named George Love is a handsome bloke with a made-up story of refinement and travel who preys on repressed, lonely women. The cold cad’s plan is to woo, marry and take them on a honeymoon where he always goes “through the formality of the wedding night,” making love “with tenderness and consideration.” His only rule is his victims must take along their bank books since, he tells them, they will have to change her name to theirs, reflecting her status as a married woman.

His bird, in this case, is Adelaide, a plain-faced milliner who has a low opinion of herself and her fellow workers. “We all got something wrong with us,” she says, “that’s why we’re in the back room. Where the customers can’t see us.” But George spies her one day and recognizes “the sort of face that belongs to the sort of woman who teaches piano or serves tea or issues library books.”

His plan seems to work at first. She buys a wedding dress (not white but brown and shiny, making her look like “a pork sausage,” in George’s view). Off they go to a seedy boarding house in Weston Super Mare where he wants to fulfill his husbandly duties but she shyly prefers drinking tea and playing cards. End of Act One.

That set-up prepares the audience for the various deceptions and discoveries of Act Two, which shall go un-named here in the interests of critical responsibility but have a lot to do with her ability to tease him out of suppressed and painful memories. In revelations that explain but do not deepen the characters, we learn that their dysfunctional adult lives are rooted in a lack of authentic parental love. No surprise there.

This is melodrama, folks, with its conventions of romantic, emotional sensationalism so don’t look for too much depth. But Leach is concerned not with the trappings of revenge tragedy but the peculiarities and sudden reverses of the human heart. You may have to dig to discover what she seems to be driving at, yet it’s there.

But you won’t have to dig to know what Mark Shanahan’s George Love is up to. The actor, so good in “Journey’s End” at the playhouse, here lets us know from the outset what a conniving, prideful villain he is. Eschewing charm, hinting at private hurts, he doesn’t seduce the audience even while he’s seducing Adelaide. He reaches an apogee when, turning on a dime, he exposes George’s vulnerability.

As Adelaide, Andrea Maulella finds the steel beneath her corseted existence. She never makes the character stupid, just naïve and she, too, has a beautiful moment of revelation, no doubt helped by Brancato’s assured direction.

Local audiences should cotton to “Tryst” as they did to “Hot ‘n Cole.” But it’s been a rocky year for the playhouse, beginning with Tazewell Thompson’s firing and including ill-fated productions of “The Pavilion,” “Time of My Life” and “Scramble.” All is not lost, of course, not if an artistic director who gives the customers solid summer entertainment sprinkled with a few stars comes on board.

This review originally appeared in The Hour, Norwalk, August 14, 2008

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