Los Angeles Theater Review: BRIEF ENCOUNTER (The Wallis in Beverly Hills)

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by Jason Rohrer on February 22, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

STILLED LIFE

In 2007, Noël Coward and David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter, a somewhat maudlin expansion of the 1936 Coward one-act Still Life, was turned into a stage spectacle by Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatre (a production commissioned by Cineworld, David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers).  In it, two happily married, middle-class British strangers fall for each other over a series of stolen Thursday afternoons.  (“It’ll end in tears,” an observer notes.)  Nominated for four Olivier awards and two Tonys, the show has toured the English-speaking world.  It would deserve its success for director Emma Rice’s imagery alone – live action is staged Annette McLaughlin, Damon Daunno and Hannah Yelland in Kneehigh's BRIEF ENCOUNTER at the Brad Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center.before a number of projection screens, gorgeous moving backdrops of setting and symbol, marrying theater and cinema.  When a live actor walks through a movie screen and instantly appears in the movie, it’s not exactly a new trick but it’s never been better executed; most excitingly, these projections make available an actor’s expression in glorious fifty-feet-wide close-up.  These are among the most complex, technically challenging, and beautifully realized stage moments one can experience.  (Sets and costumes by Neil Murray; sound design by Simon Baker; projection and film design by Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll; lighting design by Malcolm Rippeth; puppetry training by Sarah Wright; music directed by Ian Ross.)  Added to this an exemplary swing cast of actor-dancers, and a scattering of Coward songs performed live by multi-instrumentalists in music-hall uniforms (Damon Daunno, David Brown, James Gow).

Jim Sturgeon and Hannah Yelland in Kneehigh's BRIEF ENCOUNTER at the Brad Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center.But from good seats at the Wallis Annenberg the other night, I felt the whole time as if I were watching the show through binoculars from across Santa Monica Boulevard.  An awful distance disconnected me from the wonderful stage pictures.  In small part, this may be attributed to the disused cafe tables placed between the proscenium and the house in a fussy separation of stage and spectator.  The bigger issue is that the love story from which I was separated wasn’t really there in the first place.

As the decent, guilt-ridden adulterers, Hannah Yelland and Jim Sturgeon have been directed to stiffen their upper lips in mortified embarrassment, almost to inexpressiveness.  Their reserve works in contrast with the free and easy romances of the working class couples (Joe Alessi, Annette McLaughlin, Damon Daunno, and a standout in a flawless company, the amazing Dorothy Atkinson) who serve them tea and get them to their trains.  But we spend little more time with housewife Laura and M.D. Alec than with the ancillary characters; and different as their characters are, the working class couples are still a dramatic redundancy, since they serve the exact same function.  Worse yet, none of these three love stories is much more than a sketch.

Scene from Kneehigh's BRIEF ENCOUNTER at the Brad Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center.In adapting for the stage, Rice has retained the plot and jettisoned all but the most essential details of Laura and Alec’s courtship.  Still Life and the original film are talky pieces in which we watch Laura and Alec fall in love; the lovers muse and whimper at each other a great deal; we see multiple scenes of domestic suspense; Laura slowly sickens to find herself becoming a conniving liar.  God is in these moments.  In this incarnation, much jeopardy and much fascination are gone along with the story elements.  We see the couple mostly in reaction to the thoughts and acts for which they feel guilty.  There’s a sameness to many of their scenes, and lacking intimacy with them, especially given the arch performances, I was not allowed to invest emotionally in their struggles.

Hannah Yell and and Jim Sturgeon in Kneehigh's BRIEF ENCOUNTER at the Brad Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center.It’s been said that this Brief Encounter is primarily an homage to its filmic ancestor, but it has too many of its own ideas for that.  In an occasional, entirely metaphorical gesture, the characters onstage are physically moved by the cinematic image and boom of breakers on a rocky shore.  The live actors throw their hands up and sway, enveloped by passion.  It’s a visual and auditory shorthand for the walking and talking and feeling that takes up most of a real romance, and every time it happened I wished it had been replaced by a less abstract choice: a deepening of individual character, or the exploration of a concrete moment.  Rice’s lovely, imaginative theatrical choices (at one point, windblown newspapers are puppeteered to wrap around furtive lovers) pile up, adding to an already style-heavy presentation.  I’d love to see this much skill and industry contribute to a melodrama as substantial as the one Coward wrote.  As it is, this rather cold show categorized itself in a manner I’ve come to associate with Cirque du Soleil: much ado about circus tricks.

photos by Jim Cox

Brief Encounter
Kneehigh Theatre Company
Bram Goldsmith Theater
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills
scheduled to end on March 23, 2014
for tickets, call 310-746-4000 or visit www.thewallis.org

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