By Lucy Komisar
I can’t remember when I’ve seen a play as hokey and charming and full of fun as Brief Encounter. Okay, I take that back. It was The 39 Steps. But not surprising, it is also a spoof of an iconic British film, that one by Alfred Hitchcock. This one is by No«l Coward. If you want to have a very good time, go to this production. But notice the deeper meaning underneath it all.
Brief Encounter was a one-act play before it was a film, so Emma Rice has done a good turn by bringing it back to the stage, this time as a musical! We are in Milford Junction, in Surrey, England, in 1938.
By chance, two people meet at the train station café when Laura (Hannah Helland), a housewife, gets a speck in her eye, and Alec (Tristan Sturrock), a doctor, takes it out. From there grows true love.
But they are already married. We see Laura’s husband Fred (Joseph Alessi), older and rather boring. We never know Alec’s wife. The lovers meet from time to time at the station, at lunches in London, and in a borrowed apartment during an affair that seems as much consumed by anguish and guilt as by joy.
Laura wants to be free, to have a life that is exiting and fulfilling, not to be stuck in the humdrum middle class home we see ruled by her husband.
Pretty hokey in our time, no? So adapter/director Emma Rice goes with the hokey. We hear the movie’s overdone style of their dialogue, from her Please we must be sensible? to his, I love you and you love me too. There’s no use pretending this hasn’t happened, because it has.
We see the characters push through a screen to appear in the real film. The video of a toy train gets pulled along a clothes line of hanging sheets. We see and hear films of waves crashing on rocks during unseen moments of passion. (When did crashing waves come to symbolize sex?)
Helland and Sturrock are perfect in the roles, with just the right level of controlled ardor and overwrought speech. They could have been cast in the original film.
A couple of other romances play out with the excellent cast: the over-the-top tea shop owner (Annette McLaughlin) and her railroad employee boyfriend (Alessi) and a very erotic couple, the tea shop worker (Dorothy Atkinson) and her suitor (Gabriel Ebert).
A first-rate band featuring accordion, trumpet, bass, banjo and piano presents a host of Coward treats, including a satiric, sexy Mad About the Boy. And that gets most directly to what is agreed to be Coward’s underlying, unspoken theme of the play, which was the difficulty of having gay relationships in the 1930s. They were as forbidden as sex outside marriage.
Then, desire and disappointment in love is universal. It is to Rice’s credit and the audience’s great enjoyment that she turns this very serious drama into a lark.
Brief Encounter. Written by No«l Coward; adapted & directed by Emma Rice. Kneehigh Theatre of London production for Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, New York City. 212-719-1300. Opened Sept. 28, 2010; closes Jan. 2, 2011.