Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Brief Encounter" at ACT: Extraordinary How Potent

A woman, pretty but careworn, in a plain 1930s tweed suit and sensible shoes, swings from a chandelier. I saw a photograph of this moment from Kneehigh Theater's adaptation of Brief Encounter accompanying a review of its London production, and was instantly intrigued. Fortunately for us on the other side of the pond, Brief Encounter was a hit in England and is touring to several venues in the United States. Its first American stop was ACT, here in San Francisco; it will also play New York and Minneapolis.

I still have not seen the classic 1940s film of Brief Encounter, though it's been on my "to-view" list ever since I saw The History Boys, in which some of the characters reenact a scene from the movie. I was at the SF production with a native Londoner, a friend-of-a-friend, and was somewhat relieved when he told me that he hadn't seen the movie, either--even though it is a much bigger cultural thing in England than it is here. (cf. Anthony Lane: "The film has been a favorite, almost a fetish, among British audiences ever since. This year, on Valentine’s Day, it was screened outside the National Theatre, in London, so that young lovers could sit in the cold, huddle together, and learn just how incredibly miserable the business of love can be. What other country would subscribe to this?")

Perhaps the film is "incredibly miserable," but this stage adaptation is not. While it still follows Noel Coward's classic story of the hopeless, and hopelessly repressed, love that arises between housewife Laura and married doctor Alec, it employs a lively repertoire of theatrical tricks that expand the emotional palette. There's puppetry, projections and film clips that the performers interact with, surreal images like the moment with the chandelier, and frequent musical interludes where the cast performs Coward songs that comment on the action. The show not only presents the basic love story, but also investigates why these kinds of love stories appeal to us. But don't go thinking that this is some kind of ironic, deconstructed, coldly Brechtian piece. It manages to comment on itself while still telling the story with absolute sincerity, and creating a cozy, warm-hearted atmosphere.

Here's one of my favorite examples of these tricks in action. As Alec realizes that he will have to end things with Laura, he stands in a spotlight and sings "A Room With A View," accompanying himself on ukulele. When originally composed, this song was one of those peppy-cutesy 1920s numbers, à la "I've Got a Crush On You" or "Tea For Two." But when performed in such a stripped-down arrangement at a pivotal moment of the drama (in fact, it's the first time Alec sings), it reveals the wistful yearning behind the lyrics; it's nostalgic and fresh all at once. Extraordinary how potent cheap music is!

This is really Laura's story, though (at the end, she gets a musical moment of her own, which is so fitting that I will not spoil it). We see scenes of Laura's life at home with her husband, Fred, and two children, but we never meet Alec's family. And I did wonder about the fairness of this--if this made us more willing to condone Laura and Alec's attempted adultery. From what we see of Fred, we don't really mind that Laura plans to cheat on him--he's dull and oblivious, while Alec is younger, handsomer, and far more passionate and idealistic. But what is Alec's wife, the unseen Madeleine, like? Why does he think it's all right to betray her?

Is it that Madeleine, like Fred, is boring? But if that were the case, surely Alec would choose a more exciting woman than Laura for his secret lover? Laura is a perfectly nice lady, of course, and we eventually learn of her sadness and her deferred dreams. But she is also repressed, hesitant, confused and conflicted. So, if Alec wants to have an affair, there must be women with whom it would be easier, and more fun. What made him choose Laura, and see the parts of her soul no one else can see?

I wonder, then, if Brief Encounter is partly a wish-fulfillment fantasy: that of being a quiet, unassuming person who nevertheless is seen, and chosen, and loved by a smart, good-looking guy who's in touch with his emotions. Is Laura just a stand-in for the straight females and gay males in the audience, who can dream of projecting themselves into her situation--of swinging from that chandelier, giddy with love?

Brief Encounter might be more complex if it showed scenes of Alec's life at home, but as I suggested, that's also tricky to finesse. If Alec's wife were all sympathetic, we'd no longer yearn for Alec and Laura to get together; but if Alec's wife were unlikable, we'd wonder why he married her in the first place. So, instead of confronting this problem, the stage play fills out its running time with two other love stories that take place in the train station café where Laura and Alec meet weekly. The friendly stationmaster is courting the haughty café proprietress, and a fresh-faced candy vendor is flirting with the giggly waitress. These characters do most of the singing in the show, providing comic relief that also comments on the Laura/Alec story. But sometimes these subplots feel like filler, as in an irrelevant interlude where two soldiers come into the café and demand whiskey, even though the café's liquor license won't permit it.

All the members of the cast are multi-talented, but I was especially impressed by Joseph Alessi, who switches effortlessly between the roles of the buttoned-up bourgeois Fred and the cheerful working-class stationmaster, looks like Stanley Tucci, performs a song-and-dance routine on the lobby staircase at intermission, and plays the spoons!

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