‘Brief Encounter’ on Broadway, a Review

“Brief Encounter,” currently holding forth at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54, goes on forever. At least it seems that way.

This much-lauded production, the brainchild of England’s Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theater, is a trendy po-mo gloss on the deliciously sentimental and, dare I say, noble1945 David Lean film of the same name, based on the Noel Coward play Still Life.

The plot of the film concerns a handsome married doctor (Alec) and a resolutely proper and equally married upper middle class woman (Laura) who meet by chance in a drab railway station canteen during World War II and fall hopelessly, madly, inexplicably in love. Bound by their principles, not to mention the unwritten but nonetheless rigid rules of their class, they battle against their fate, succumb briefly, attempt to consummate their love, fail embarrassingly, and part forever, leaving the what-might-have-beens blowing about on the foggy station platform.

Kneehigh, under the guidance of adaptor and director Emma Rice, has spent an enormous amount of theatrical ingenuity and creativity to retell this tale to remarkably little effect.

It’s difficult to tell what Ms. Rice thought she was accomplishing here, but it’s not hard to imagine that the thinking went something along the lines of “39 Steps was a big hit; let’s find another old chestnut of a film and do something similar.”

Ms. Rice, like Coward, uses the working class characters who work at the station to comment on the stiff upper lip code that prevents the main characters from acting on their love. The “lower orders,” Coward seems to say, bound by much the same societal strictures, are more willing to take risks to grab a bit of happiness along the way.

But, unlike Coward, Ms. Rice paints them as buffoons, which not only demeans them but makes any intended contrast rather beside the point. She also uses them as Greek chorus and Bunraku-like puppet masters who, quite literally, manipulate the star-crossed lovers.

When, in one of many overwrought visual metaphors, Alec and Laura fall in love, they literally fall down, only to be picked up, rolled over, and set upright again by the minor characters. And in case you didn’t get it the first time, the bit is repeated a few more time for good measure.

The net effect of all this “distancing” is to prevent us from caring one iota for Alec and Laura and wondering, “Why bother?”

Too bad because Ms. Rice and her technical team are a seemingly rich repository of theatrical invention and “Brief Encounter” has many ingenious touches that in the service of a more coherent vision might have paid better dividends.

One especially nice touch is the use of film and the slatted screens on which it is projected, allowing stage-bound actors to literally step into the filmed world.

Ms. Rice is blessed, too, by her actors, most of whom have been encouraged to ham it up shamelessly. They respond with alacrity. While I felt much of the shtick of Dorothy Atkinson in multiple roles (beryl, et. al.) was way too much, I couldn’t help but admire the abandon with which she threw herself into the assignment.

The major characters fared less well. The Laura seemed to be at pains to signal that she really was not at all like the pill of a woman she was imitating, while Alec was (in that dreaded word) adequate. Much of the blame I think must be laid at the feet of Ms. Rice, who clearly has no great respect for her protagonists.

I should also point out that my opinion is in the minority. The New York critics and many in the audience the night I saw the play disagree. The cynic in me tends to think that this retooling of “Brief Encounter” allows the intelligentsia to flirt with sentimentality without admitting to being sentimental, much in the same way that lurid exposes of wayward women allow the prurient to indulge their taste for smut while appearing high-minded.

Ms. Rice may be onto something after all.