Theatre Review: Brits Off Broadway

59 E. 59 St. Theaters
Written by Torben Betts 

Directed by Christopher Harper 
June 3, 2017
My Eyes Went Dark
Written and Directed by Matthew Wilkinson

June 10, 2017 

Reviewed By Scott Klavan 

Now in its 13th year, BritsOffBroadway is one of the most valuable, and least heralded, theater festivals in New York, maybe in the country. Located at the three-theater complex 59 E. 59, in mid-town Manhattan east, it showcases new plays, and a few revivals, from England, with British casts, mostly shows from the equivalent of that country’s Off-Broadway, Off West End. This year, BritsOffBroadway features nine plays, including a revival of the rarely seen The Roundabout, by J.P. Priestley, and the acclaimed Rotterdam, both now closed. This reviewer attended two Brits shows near the end of the fest, Invincible and My Eyes Went Dark, and found that the shows highlight some of the contrasts between U.S. and British theater. We will “score” those differences later. 

In the meantime: 

Invincible, a co-production of The Original Theatre Co. and Ghost Light Theatre Co., is a series of meetings between two couples, one upscale, the other down, new neighbors in a rough-hewn suburb north of London. Oliver (played by Alistair Whatley) and Emily (Emily Bowker) are unmarried sophisticates, with two children; they are guilt-ridden over the loss of another baby. The wife is socially conscious, politically liberal and wanted to get out of elitist London and by moving, interact with the grittier side of society and humanity; government worker Oliver is more ambivalent about the change. They come into conflict with childlike, aggressive postman Alan (Graeme Brookes) and his sexy, emotional wife Dawn (Elizabeth Boag), who worry about the bifurcated economy as well as their son serving in the military in the Middle East. The play veers from silly social comedy, with Emily forced to critique Alan’s terrible hobbyist paintings, to melodrama, when the marriage of the postman and wife ultimately crumbles under the weight of their son’s experience overseas.

The opening sequence of Invincible has exuberance and humor and the quirkily vivid mannerisms of the characters/actors hold our attention. But in its subsequent two scenes, the play expands into dangerous territory, becoming baldly obvious, its clever lampooning overwhelmed by clichéd pathos. The mix of writing and acting styles here—naturalism versus theatricality—is interesting but finally distracting and off-putting. Playwright Torben Betts has been compared to Alan Ayckbourn and Invincible is reminiscent of Ayckbourn’s excellent one-act Mother Figure, but replaces that play’s delicate satire and undercurrent of loneliness and despair with a broad comicality and finger-pointing tragedy that don’t adhere to each other.

My Eyes Went Dark, produced by 107Group, in association with Traverse Theatre and Cusack Projects Ltd., and written and directed by Matthew Wilkinson, is shorter, more disciplined, and better. Apparently “inspired” by real events, it tells the compelling story of a Russian-Osettian architect tormented by the death of his wife and two children in a mid-air plane collision as they flew to visit him at his work site in France. The father Nikolai Koslov (Declan Conlon) stalks the air traffic supervisor who has been let off with a slap on the wrist for the tragedy. Along the way, he interacts with numerous characters, including visions of his late wife, an interrogating policeman, and a young playmate of his son, all played by a woman, Thusitha Jayasundera. The play’s short cryptic scenes are imaginatively staged on a nearly bare set, depicting Nikolai’s remorse and frustrated, finally violent search for justice. It is taut and involving and the actors strong. The main drawback is the lack of attention to Koslov’s Russian heritage, which, because of its repeated mentions, presumably forms a large part of his motivations. His move to an architectural assignment far from his provincial home, need for fatherly retribution, and reception back in Osettia after the ordeal ends, all point to a complicated tribal response to the traumatic events. But that powerful/ meaningful aspect of the man is merely skimmed.  

Both shows run until July 2.

After viewing these two plays, it seemed fun to create a scorecard of the differences between American and U.K. theater. Are two plays enough on which to give definitive judgments re the culture of huge, influential countries? Of course not! But so what? This is America, after all, where we thrive on half-formed, knee-jerk opinions. There are 9 different categories, with “winners” chosen in all the different sections. (It’s the USA, baby: there has to be a winner.) Here goes:            

Mix of playwriting styles: As mentioned, British Invincible has both Realism and Comic Surrealism—the actions and behavior of the couples are jovially inconsistent, all over the place. American plays, particularly recent ones, tend to stick to a strict code of on-stage conduct; the reality of the world we are watching is kept stable. While the British mix shows imagination, Invincible’s looseness too often comes off as immature. Winner: US.  

Straightforward statements of beliefs, worldviews, feelings: American shows now feel it’s corny, outdated to make sincere pronouncements, express direct emotion, and will even spend a whole show trying to find dialogue schemes that avoid or run around earnestness, hitting meaning from the side. My Eyes Went Dark is more American in this regard. The characters in Invincible state stuff upfront. Sincerity is at the heart of great theater, but Invincible hits it too directly on the head and could use a little restraint.  Winner: Tie. 

“Naivete”—a sense of Spirit and Fun in the presentation of a play, even one with serious intentions: Both Invincible and My Eyes Went Dark have an underlying feel of the enjoyment of the artists. Eyes may deal with a tragedy but its staging is lively, redolent of the pleasure the show takes in communicating its action and themes to you. Because of political and financial obligations, US plays seem to need to be perfect, and the audience feels the pressure; the work can be nervous and pinched. The British know It’s Only A Play. Winner: Brits. 

Enjoyment of the Female Body: Invincible is unafraid to feature the fantastic cleavage of Elizabeth Boag as Dawn; her shapely bod is a source of lust, enjoyment, as well as humor in the play, is even a plot peg. The inhibitions of US Feminism and Political Correctness have shut down the use of female sexuality on stage, and if it is mentioned or shown, it is basically just as a tragic symbol of the male domination of women. (The “unbeautiful” male body of Invincible’s Graeme Brookes as Dawn’s husband Alan is also displayed for long periods; American male gym-rat actors would likely never be seen in such a funnily flabby state.)  Winner: Brits. (If I could give two points for this category, I would.)

Mix of acting styles: The Invincible actors playing Emily & Alan—the wife of one couple and husband of another—provide broad, even cartoonish portrayals, as opposed to the other two more natural players. However, it has to be said Brookes’s Alan was often highly effective and his physicality, combining neediness and aggression, made for some of the most memorable moments of the piece. This kind of over-the-top acting doesn’t fly in the US anymore, where the Method is the Rule. Regardless of the pair’s skill, they might not have been cast at all in an American production of the piece. Winner: US. (Hard call, but US acting is top-flight at this point in time.)

Three Act obligation: As mentioned, Invincible entertained for one scene but hung on for two more major sections, with an intermission, essentially following the three act structure of yore. US productions have gone the other way; many are now 90-minute one acts. (As in My Eyes Went Dark) While the edited American play has been written up pejoratively in these EIL columns, here, overlength is a negative for the Brits. Winner: US. 

Accents: My Eyes Went Dark uses virtually only British accents for characters that are mainly Russian and Scandinavian. For the versatile Thusitha Jayasundera, a working-class British accent takes the place of a Russian one, etc. This would likely not be “allowed” in a contemporary US show. The Americans would try for accuracy and view the exclusive use of the home country accent as politically condescending and disrespectful. The accents were part of Eyes’ unsatisfying diminishment of the culture of lead Nikolai. Winner: US. 

Story relating to Russia and Europe: Limited and dominated by those pesky Political concerns, and a kind of self-deprecatory national diffidence, Americans usually do not produce plays about these far-flung areas of the world anymore; the Middle East and Africa are exceptions. The British, as exemplified by the topic and locales of My Eyes Went Dark, are more open, expansive and adventurous in this regard. Winner: Brits. 

Funding: The British government helps subsidize the arts. The US: not-so-much. Winner: Brits.   

RESULTS: Brits 4; US 4; Tie 1

Okay, it’s a wimpy tie. But these days, US and British culture have more in common than not, and respect must be given to the symbiotic relationship we have with our forebears, one of the greatest theater countries in history. Putting aside competitiveness and comparisons, these plays prove above all that the BritsOffBroadway Festival is a must for out-of-towners, and locals. Everybody wins. 

Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published inBest American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015.  He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In 2015, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. 


Photo Credits:
Invincible, Manuel Harlan: My Eyes Went Dark, Carol Rosegg

Scott Klavan’s Review of Oslo at EIL 

Scott Klavan’s Review of Come From Away at EIL 

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