“I have no ambition,” says the stolid farmhand at the center of The York Realist, and the same goes for Peter Gill’s slow, sweet, sad play. It doesn’t want big things, doesn’t deal in grand gestures; it understands broad issues, but its concerns are essentially those of the hearth and the heart. Set in a ’60s England exploding with the energies of change, it’s nonetheless a quiet story, the kind that can uncover more than one layer of melancholy in an observation as simple as “I can’t comfort you.” And what coalesces as Colleen Delany delivers that line at the Studio Theatre sums up all the strengthsand the weaknessesof Serge Seiden’s ultimately unsatisfying production.
Delany, whose subtle, lyrical way with sadness is rapidly making her one of my favorite local actresses, is anything but the center of the show. She plays Doreen, the plain, old-fashioned country girl quietly smitten with George, the Yorkshireman of the title, who’s the pivot point in what would be a love triangle if he loved Doreen back. His affections, though, have another object: John, the Londoner who’s come down from the city to work on a local production of the York mystery plays. The entire play transpires in the homely parlor of the cottage George shares with his ailing mother, where John turns up to find out why George hasn’t been coming to rehearsals.
If you’ve ever been uncomfortable negotiating a quasi-social, quasi-business relationship with someone who makes you warm under the collar, you’ll know the answer as soon as Tom Story’s engagingly nervous John steps through the door. And just as surely, you’ll know that things can’t work for these two: Gill bookends the play’s main actionJohn and George’s halting, under-the-radar circlings, the comings and goings of neighbors and relatives, the aftermath of George’s triumphant performance in the passion playwith a pair of sequences that make it clear both that they’ve broken off the relationship and that they’re still crazy about each other. Yet so clear is the social and cultural gulf between them that you never really expect either to make the leap across it.
Gill wants to convince us that such a thing might be possible: These characters are living through the decade that saw Carnaby Street eclipse Savile Row, Liverpool and London erupt with wild new sounds, and Chelsea come alive with a compelling new theater written from the workaday concerns of people like George and his family. The suggestion is made, implicitly and then explicitly, that if ever a rustic might break out of Britain’s rigid class system, put the countryside behind him, and make a new life and career in the city, this is the time. (Gill, in fact, is a product of the very theater revolution his character John is living through; he came of age in the London of angry-young-man playwright John Osborne and working-class hero Albert Finney, and The York Realist is both a valentine to that era’s achievements and a lament for the changes it couldn’t achieve.) But George is what he is, and he knows his limits: Even without his mother to keep him in the country, he wouldn’t feel right in the city.
The small, contained tragedy Gill enshrines in The York Realist is that George knows his gifts, too: He does love the freedom of the stage, is the good actor John believes he could be, might make himself a different life if only he could try. But Gill signals from the beginning that he simply can’t: The play’s very bones are the repetitive rituals of this man’s life. Tea gets made; the cups get washed; neighbors and relatives come and go, to the pub and to the chapel and finally to the funeral that might set George free. And it all gets talked about, in the endless, circular, empty phrases of people who have no real conversation. This life, these teacups, that dresser or that stove, are all these people know, all they can discuss; it’s maddening, and finding the dignity in ituncovering the passions, hearing the rude poetryis the whole point.
Markus Potter’s George, alas, is the one tone-deaf presence on stage. The air around the other characters positively vibrates with subtext: Faith Potts’ Mother knows more than she’s saying about what’s going on with John, and she’s clearly made an uneasy peace with it. Nanette Savard’s Barbara plainly gets it, too, though maybe unconsciously; she observes the niceties, though at one point she seems barely able to remain in the room. Even poor Doreen apparently understands, and yet tells herself she doesn’t, at least until pretense becomes impossible. Thus the freight in that “I can’t comfort you”; Delany doesn’t stress the “I,” but you can’t help hearing the emphasis.
It’s movingand it would be crushing, if only Potter gave any indication that George feels as miserable about it as everyone else. But he’s opaque, all surface discontent, at least until the concluding speeches that put his unhappiness into words. And wordswell, they’re not where this play does its best work. If Seiden could coax the kind of work from Potter that he gets from his other principals, he might make The York Realist’s everyday tragedies feel elemental. Without the central performance that would transform them into something universal, though, Gill’s domestic dramashowever minutely observedwill be forever parochial.
Aliens visit Virginians in one of the new plays that opened at the Source Theatre this past weekend. A Southern belle learns life lessons from cats in the other one. And yet at bottom, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Dark Matters and Allyson Currin’s Fur and Other Dangers are as concerned as The York Realist with the structures and strictures of everyday life.
Dark Matters’ Cleary family gets fractured and reassembledwith a piece missingafter the missus goes AWOL for a week and returns talking about hanging out with extraterrestrials. As he learns more about what his wife’s been up toand starts to question what truths might lie behind her unlikely storyBruce Rauscher’s initially sturdy Reed Cleary discovers how little he really understands about “what exists between people, what binds them together.” And about the many and various ways they come apart.
Aguirre-Sacasa (once a Washington City Paper contributing writer) builds perhaps one too many twists into his plot, and not every line of dialogue rings true. (Particularly grating is the earnestness of Rauscher’s “When she opens that door, I want to be the first thing she sees, so she knows that we were waiting for her”a Lifetime sentiment that seems out of place in a play that’s ultimately as dark as its title suggests.) But Dark Matters works structurally, and it raises questions as smart as they are troubling. Director Joe Banno (another City Paper contributor) nicely balances the play’s humor and its quiet horror, and his cast does fine work: Evan Omerso makes a convincingly sketchy 16-year-old, Kevin Adams an avuncular if surprisingly uncertain sheriff, and Jenifer Deal a warm, complex mother/wife/woman of mystery.
If Dark Matters suggests, bleakly, that sometimes we’d rather believe the worst about those we love than believe what “the real world” says is unlikely, Currin’s rather less ambivalent fable says straight out that no development is too unlikely as long as it helps us sort out our troubled relationships. Fur and Other Dangers smacks of the workshop: “Write something with talking cats,” someone might have said, and now Currin’s got a play about a striving steel magnolia who can’t see how good she’s got it at home until a succession of nattering felines take pains to show her.
The plot’s inconsequential, and the characters are sketchesthe good-hearted husband, the gifted child, the upwardly mobile ’60s Southerner so obsessed with living the Good Housekeeping life that she makes her household a living hell for everyone in it. And Currin hasn’t decided whether Fur and Other Dangers is about its conceit or about its “concerns.” If the former is what interests heroh, surely it’s not the former: Even a playwright wouldn’t ask us to believe that cats, wise and mysterious as they are, really do represent the cure for what ails us. So it must be the latter, in which case we spend too much time watching the antics of Jesse Terrill and Diane Cooper-Gould, who overplay an array of variously ill-tempered furballs.
It’s less painful than it sounds, though, not least because Toni Rae Brotons is so damn charming as Currin’s heroine; she puts a good deal more energy and craft into the part of Genevieve than the play deserves, and she very nearly makes the character’s struggles substantial enough for a rational person to care about. Likewise for Jason Lott’s Jim: He’s goofily, eagerly winning in the early scenes, subtly warm in a late sequence that requires him to act without words.
If that bit is Lott’s best moment, though, it’s the play’s worsta felis ex machina contrivance that’s the culmination of a gimmicky concept. What Fur and Other Dangers has to tell us is that in the real world, it’s hard to make a workable play about the metaphysics of talking cats. That, of course, is what musicals are for. CP