The new Broadway season got off to a romantic start last night as "Brief Encounter" opened at Studio 54.
The show arrives there by way of the U.K., where it was created by the Kneehigh Theatre company in 2008, and St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. There, it proved to be a 100% charmer last winter.
A small but noticeable percentage of that perfection seems to have been mysteriously lost in carrying the show across the Manhattan Bridge to a less intimate playing space for this Roundabout Theater presentation.
Drawn from Noel Coward's one-act "Still Life" and the screenplay for the 1945 cinematic tearjerker about an affair, the stage production remains cheeky and charming, inventive and finely acted. Coward songs, laced liberally and precisely throughout, are always easy on the ears.
But for anyone who's seen it before, the show is unlikely to be the intense swoon-inducing experience it was in Brooklyn.
One reason is that this theatrical charm piece depends somewhat on surprise. Familiarity with how adapter and director Emma Rice employs puppets, flying sequences and custom-made film clips to tell the story will snuff out some of the sense of wonder.
Another issue seems to lie in the show's new residence. Studio 54 appeared an inspired setting for this story of 1930s buttoned-up England that follows Laura (Hannah Yelland) and Alec (Tristan Sturrock), who meet by chance at a train station café and fall head-over-heels, despite being married to others.
A former palace of hedonism and excess now home to a story of pent-up passion and civility? Intriguing.
But in practice, some of the captivating coziness is lost, and Laura and Alec's romance seems to get swallowed up. It feels a little off.
Other pairings emerge more prominent, including one between cafe owner Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin) and train dispatcher Albert (Joseph Alessi), and another between saucy tea girl Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson) and cigarette boy Stanley (Gabriel Ebert).
It's only after about a half hour - when Laura and Alec take a boat trip (accompanied by the haunting tune, "Go Slow, Johnny") that things really click for them, as well as the entire production.
Call me impatient, but it was too long to wait in this "Brief" affair.
New York had an brief, intense love affair last winter with Brief Encounter, the London-based Kneehigh Theatre's wildly imaginative and inordinately
entertaining adaptation of David Lean's 1945 film about a pair of married-to-other-people Brits who have a brief, intense love affair. It spent seven weeks at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, playing to sold-out crowds and rapturous reviews.
Now Brief Encounter has returned, coming to Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54, where it opened last night. The staging is every bit as exciting--but the overall experience, as is probably inevitable, can't quite match that magical spark of the first meeting.
Noël Coward wrote the original screenplay, an adaptation of his earlier play. It's the heartbreaking and very British story of love and obligation, repression and desire: A middle-class man and woman, each with families, meet and fall for each other but soon realize they must part, because they must "behave like sensible human beings."
Kneehigh's version, adapted and directed by Emma Rice, the company's artistic director, re-creates his script while also commenting on it, providing both the romantic story and a very witty multimedia meta-story.
Supporting actors double as a small band, providing jaunty tunes that express the characters' repressed emotions. (The cast--mostly unchanged since St. Ann's--is multitalented and very hardworking.) Crashing waves--a metaphor for surging emotion and unattainable freedom—are projected on the upstage wall. There's ingenious 39 Steps-style stagecraft--dummies for children; an actress with a long stick moving a windblown newspaper across the stage; the full cast bobbing rapidly in unison to suggest an express train rumbling past. Characters jump in and out of the movie itself, a live Purple Rose of Cairo. This Brief Encounter is vibrantly theatrical and totally absorbing.
But it's a less completely absorbing experience than it was at St. Ann's.
Part of Ms. Rice's vision is to place audience members in the world of the story from the moment they enter the theater--there are uniformed ushers and usherettes wandering the aisles (not to worry: the usual, minimally competent crew is there to hand you your Playbill and misdirect you to your seat); that band playing at the back of the house; and, after the show, finger sandwiches as you depart. This is the part of Brief Encounter that didn't survive the Broadway transfer: At the intimate space created within St. Ann's, it was fascinatingly immersive; in the barnlike Studio 54, it's a cute affectation.
From the imperial, stiff-upper-lip England of the 1930s, we move to the sclerotic, polyester-plaid England of the 1970s. Alphabetical Order, Michael Frayn's 1975 comedy about life in the pre-Google research library of a failing small-town newspaper, opened last night at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row in--remarkably--its New York premiere.
The Keen Company, an Off Broadway group dedicated to what it calls "sincere plays," likes to find lesser-known old works by noted playwrights, and you can see the attraction of this one. Its themes are current: The newspaper is failing; the staffers are struggling with change and demands for efficiency; and ultimately the business closes and they lose their jobs. And Mr. Frayn, best known for Noises Off and Copenhagen, is both a gifted farceur and a serious thinker.
But this production, ploddingly directed by Carl Forsman, the Keen's artistic director, doesn't work. It feels dated, not relevant. The slapstick--you see the scenes building, but they never take flight--doesn't get laughs. Sincerity, one might suggest, is not the best approach to farce.
The brilliant production of "Brief Encounter" that opened on Broadway last night should make all but the sourest puss believe in romance again. It's a spirited charm offensive that's just impossible to resist.
The British import, which had an acclaimed run at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse in December, draws from both the eponymous 1945 David Lean movie and its source material, Noel Coward's short play "Still Life."
But while the central concern of "Brief Encounter" remains love, adapter/director Emma Rice also blows kisses to the theater itself. She brings up songs, puppets, projections and moving sets, but it never feels gimmicky: Everything serves the story.
Like the film, the show, set in 1938, looks at what happens to Alec (Tristan Sturrock) and Laura (Hannah Yelland) after they meet in a train station's tea room. It's not much of a spoiler -- check that title -- to say that, despite their mutual attraction, things end on a note that could make a Tom Clancy fan cry.
The impossible passion between Alec and Laura drives the most heartbreaking scenes in the show. But this relationship is now counterbalanced by two other pairings. One is a bawdy, lustful affair between stationmaster Albert (Joseph Alessi) and Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin), who runs the cafeteria. The other is the puppy love between young Stanley (Gabriel Ebert) and Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson).
In contrast to the doomed middle-class lovers, who sacrifice their happiness with a stiff upper lip, the other couples are lower on the social ladder but more carefree. They always seem to have time for a cuppa, a tickle and a song or two.
Indeed, while not a musical per se, the show incorporates several Coward tunes, performed live and with an onstage band. The effect is like being thrown into a pre-WWII music hall, especially since some of the actors serenade the audience, unmiked, in the theater's aisles before the action proper starts.
Rice never lets us forget we're watching a show. But instead of creating a distance, her constant blurring of the fourth wall creates a bond between the audience and the multitasking cast.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the post-performance hoedown, as the band and actors move to the bar area to play fast versions of popular hits like "Don't Stop Believin' " and "We Are Family."
A little cheesy? Maybe, but why deny yourself the pure joy of this moment?
The acrobatics of love are performed in high style in “Brief Encounter,” which is surely the most enchanting work of stagecraft ever inspired by a movie. It’s not erotic, Kama Sutra-style contortions that I’m talking about. The physical activities that occur in this exquisite British-born production, which opened on Tuesday night at Studio 54, are both more everyday and exotic than that, routinely described but seldom enacted.
Walking on air, going head over heels, drowning in passion and, above all, falling, falling, falling in love: commonplace metaphors take on literal, revitalizing life in Emma Rice’s adaptation of the 1945 David Lean movie about a genteel, middleclass, almost adulterous couple. Once Laura (Hannah Yelland) meets Alec (Tristan Sturrock) in a train station, the laws of gravity are destined to be suspended. And two seemingly sensible, earthbound people will be, quite literally, swept off their feet and into the stars.
Created by the Kneehigh Theater, based in Cornwall, England, “Brief Encounter” boldly uses clichés to break through clichés. Lean’s film, from a script that Noël Coward adapted from his short play “Still Life,” would seem to have reached a point where it could be treated only with parody.
A study in sentimental stoicism, in which a barely trembling upper lip signals high emotion, it presents a hero and heroine (portrayed by Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson) who, having found their soul mates in each other, never consummate the passion that is probably the most transporting feeling they will ever know. The movie retains a devoted following, though people today tend to look sheepish when professing affection for it, like someone admitting a craving for a particularly sticky store-bought English pudding. Now Ms. Rice and her wonderful company have made it possible to embrace “Brief Encounter” once more with feeling, and without irony or embarrassment. Using the tools of music hall, classic British pantomime and story-theater — plus a bit of trompe l’oeil technology, via film projections — this production lets its audiences see a familiar movie with virgin eyes and, yes, fall in love with it all over again.
I first saw this “Brief Encounter” in London two years ago, and then again when the production came to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn last winter. I always remember it as a delicate, whimsical creation, and worry that it might not thrive in a new environment. Yet it consistently proves sturdier and smarter than I have allowed it to be. And the current incarnation, which arrives courtesy of the Roundabout Theater Company, feels to me richer than ever. It has also been altered, ever so slightly, with the aim of seducing a Broadway audience, which likes to leave a show feeling roused and exhilarated.
The plot here is that of the film, as is much of the dialogue. Alec, a married doctor, meets Laura, a housewife, in a train station, where he removes a cinder from her eye. They run into each other again on the streets of London, meet on several occasions in a state of celibate rapture (in a restaurant, in a movie house, in a park), before deciding to do the noble thing and part forever.
Ms. Rice’s production ingeniously uses distancing devices to bring us paradoxically closer to the intensity at its center. The show begins with Alec and Laura in the audience, watching a film and erupting into a quarrel that sends Laura onto the stage, where she steps, through a louvered screen, into the movie. (She then appears on film in her own prosaic living room, where her husband waits for her.) An invitation has been issued, the same that every movie makes, to walk into an alternative universe.
This production excavates that universe even as it recreates it. Alec and Laura’s story is here paralleled by the relationships of four employees at the train station: the middle-aged Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin), who runs the tea parlor there; Albert (Joseph Alessi), a conductor; Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson), Myrtle’s young assistant; and Stanley (Gabriel Ebert), the saucy candy vendor.
This scrappy quartet is less inhibited by good manners than Laura and Alec are, and what’s more, they sing, providing an implicit running musical commentary on the show’s central love affair. Their songs, performed in frolicsome vaudeville style, have lyrics by Coward, and include standards like “Mad About the Boy” and “No Good at Love.” Being Coward songs, they possess a satiny cleverness. But you find yourself hearing new chords of feeling, of apprehension and suspicion, that speak volumes about Coward’s wariness toward physical passion.
The tone of the songs’ delivery segues from sprightly innocence to a darker despair, with undertones of squalor and sordidness. And what becomes effectively Laura’s theme (as it did in the movie), Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, sounds equally like a summons to impossible bliss and to suicide.
The production’s unflaggingly inventive design team — Neil Murray (set and costumes), Malcolm Rippeth (lighting), Simon Baker (sound) and Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington (projections) — doesn’t just conjure up different locations with witty efficiency. It also subtly conveys the transformative, dissociative nature of passion, what Laura means when she says that when she goes home to her husband (also Mr. Alessi), she doesn’t recognize her own house.
The film is told from Laura’s perspective, a point of view approximated here not by narration but by the extraordinary emotional transparency of Ms. Yelland’s delicate face, which becomes the production’s lodestone. She and Mr. Sturrock occasionally sing themselves, wistfully (“A Room With a View” in Mr. Sturrock’s case). But they never join in the larky high jinks of the other performers. Whether frightening or ecstatic, love is a solemn thing for Alec and Laura. And these first-rate interpreters never wink at their characters’ seriousness, even when they fall straight backward into swoons or are strapped into harnesses to be sent flying into empyrean realms.
As it happens, Alec and Laura’s first proper (and proper it is) date is at the movies. As Alec tells her, “The stars can change in their courses, the universe go up in flames and the world crash around us, but we’ll always love going to the pictures and getting lost in the dark.”
Ms. Rice and her team reproduce that heady sensation, but they also shed a piercing, illuminating beam on what it means to be lost like that — in the movies, of course, but also in love.
Some Broadway productions have raised eyebrows and temperatures by having performers take their clothes off. But in an exquisite new staging of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter (* * * ½ out of four), the heat goes up when they put them on.
Playing Laura and Alec, a besotted couple with the misfortune of being married to other people, Tristan Sturrock and Hannah Yelland reluctantly, gingerly help each other into a jacket and blouse after nearly succumbing to a romantic moment. The tension is almost unbearable, and it's only heightened by the earnest delicacy of their movements and expressions.
Those who associate Coward with sophisticated couples gliding glibly through dry repartee may be surprised by the depths of sensuality and tenderness reached in this adaptation of his work, which opened Tuesday at Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54. Initially performed at London's Kneehigh Theatre, Encounter draws on both Coward's screenplay of the same title and his one-act play Still Life, on which the film was based.
Working with these texts and inserting musical numbers and media effects such as film-projected imagery, Kneehigh artistic director Emma Rice finds a soulfulness rare in Coward revivals.
Rice and her expert company suck you in with humor before stealing your heart. The opening sequence, in which Laura is torn between Alec and her less dashing husband, Fred — the men respectively appear with her in the orchestra section and on a large black-and-white picture screen hanging over the stage — has the cheekily stilted feel of a period-movie parody.
Other characters, too, are introduced in broad comic strokes reinforced by sportive readings of Coward's tunes, in which several actors play instruments. Standouts include Annette McLaughlin as Myrtle, the feisty manager of the train-station café where Laura and Alec meet, and Dorothy Atkinson as Beryl, a goofy waitress. But even as a blithe spirit lingers, the dialogue seems softer and more sober, the songs more plaintive and passionate.
Beryl and Myrtle find their own beaus in Gabriel Ebert's gangly Stanley and Joseph Alessi's plucky Albert. Though these affairs are sideshows on the surface, Rice and the actors reveal how these motley wooers complement and humanize each other.
Love's toughest lessons are reserved for Laura and Alec, of course. Yelland, whose Nordic beauty suggests an earthier Grace Kelly, conveys the dignity and quiet desperation of a thoroughly decent wife and mother who discovers how incomplete her life is. Sturrock, with his long, sweet-eyed face and genteel masculinity, makes it clear how the virtuous Laura could fall for Alec, and how acutely both could suffer for it.
"It will end in tears," Myrtle observes early on, watching the pair. But this charming, moving Encounter only confirms that love, however inconvenient, can be an irresistible force — even if you're just observing it.
We've seen any number of stage attractions derived from motion pictures, and some of these have incorporated actual footage -- either vintage or shot-to-order -- into the proceedings. But Broadway doesn't seem ever to have seen live actors interact with, and actually step directly into, the movie. Kneehigh Theater's production of Noel Coward's "Brief Encounter" might lose some of its impact in its relatively large Main Stem house, especially on the extreme sides and in the mezz; previous runs in London and Brooklyn played venues that were well under 500 seats. Even so, the play should get a warm reception here.
Production uses ingenious theatricality to combine a dollop of nostalgia, a dose of sentiment and a scent of satire into a frothy mix. Adapter/director Emma Rice uses a small cast and modest trappings to turn out a consistent parade of jolts of playhouse wonderment.
"Brief Encounter" -- from Coward's 1945 film, directed by David Lean -- follows a pair swept into a passionate but impossible love affair. Rice has gone back further, though, to "Tonight at 8:30," nine one-acts tailor-made by Coward in 1936 for himself and Gertrude Lawrence. "Still Life" told of a middle-class pair who unexpectedly meet, experience a wildly romantic interlude and inevitably part, all in a suburban railway refreshment room.
Rice's adaptation veers closer to the one-act than the film, employing the two lower-class comedy couples of "Still Life" to interlace the action with music hall turns. Half the songs are from the Coward songbook; the rest use words by Sir Noel set to new music by Stu Barker.
Barker provides wonderful arrangements, making sure to retain and highlight the Rachmaninoff piano concerto that serves as the film's melancholically romantic theme. Even so, strict devotees of the film might feel that their favorite has been trivialized by a cascade of songs and laughs.
Cast of seven -- each of whom, at times, supplement the hard-working two-man band -- is uniformly strong, with Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock in the central roles played on the screen by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Two members of the cast are newcomers; the rest repeat from the 2009 run at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, with Sturrock -- who has been with Kneehigh for two decades -- the one holdover from the London production. They are an ingratiating bunch, cheerfully greeting the audience during the come-in and serenading at the back of the house after the curtain call.
Youngsters provide some of the best musical moments, including a rendition of "Mad About the Boy" which has Dorothy Atkinson entwining herself in Gabriel Ebert's bass and climaxing the affair with a bit of pizzicato. Highpoint is "Go Slow, Johnny," from Coward's failed musical "Sail Away," suggestively sung by Damon Daunno as the lovers consummate their affair. British reserve being what it is, she merely removes her stockings but the electricity is palpable.
But it is, first to last, Rice's show. She works hand-in-hand with ingenious designer Neil Murray; much of the staging -- on stage, in the house, on a bridge over the deck, in midair -- must have been contrived in tandem.
The not-dissimilar screen-to-stage adaptation of "39 Steps" was a considerable success for Roundabout in 2008, and after a profitable commercial transfer on Broadway is now continuing Off Broadway. But the two shows are not strictly comparable: The Hitchcock piece took a mystery thriller and turned it into an all-out-spoof, while "Brief Encounter" takes an atmospheric film with romantic sweep and heightens those emotions, waves crashing and lovers flying head-over-heels.