New York City offers plenty of excellent acting courses, but there is no finer master class currently available than the one being presented eight times a week at the Minetta Lane Theatre. It’s there that Carey Mulligan delivers an unforgettable performance in Dennis Kelly’s one-person play Girls & Boys. For anyone interested in the art of stage acting, attendance is mandatory.
The British actress has periodically interrupted her screen career (An Education, Mudbound) to appear on our stages, delivering knockout turns on Broadway in The Seagull and Skylight, and off-Broadway in Through a Glass Darkly. But this production staged in an intimate downtown venue provides a particularly up-close-and-personal opportunity to savor her gifts. The play, previously seen at London’s Royal Court, will be released in audio form by Audible, but those only listening will miss out on Mulligan’s finely modulated body language and facial expressiveness.
The actress plays an unnamed woman who, speaking from inside a small, pale blue box, relates the story of her relationship with a man who later becomes her husband and father of her two children. She amusingly relates how she first spotted him in a long line at the Naples airport, with sparks not immediately flying. “I have to say I took an instant dislike to the man,” she says sharply, partly because he had the audacity to be distractedly reading a book and “allowing a gap to open up.” But she reappraised him when two models tried to flirt with him to snag a better place in line and he bluntly shot them down.
The marriage starts out well: “The sex was outrageous,” she informs us with an elfin gleam in her eyes. His antique wardrobe import business is successful, and she, through sheer moxie, lands an excellent job as a film documentary producer. But eventually things begin to go sour. At first, she suspects him of having an affair, only to discover that his business is in shambles. He starts to let himself go, both emotionally and physically. When she informs him that she wants a divorce, he becomes threatening. “You are never taking my kids from me, understand?” he warns.
Her tale becomes interrupted at times with flashback scenes set in a kitchen/living room area where she interacts with her children. We don’t actually see the youngsters, a fact she readily acknowledges. “I know they’re not here, by the way,” she announces. “I mean, it’s not like I think they’re actually here.”
It isn’t hard to guess where Girls & Boys is heading, at least to some degree. It could also be argued that much of the piece is a long, at times rambling setup to a horrifically tragic conclusion at tonal odds with much of what’s preceded it. But for all the flaws in the writing by Kelly (a Tony winner for the musical Matilda), the play nonetheless easily holds our attention for an uninterrupted 105 minutes.
Much of the credit goes to Mulligan, who delivers the lighter material with the timing of a veteran comedian and handles the darker aspects with shattering emotional restraint. The physically slight actress here sports a fairly thick accent and talks very rapidly, with the result that some of the lines are missed. But it hardly matters, as she’s simply mesmerizing throughout.
Lyndsey Turner’s tightly controlled staging adds to the ominous atmosphere, as does the superb scenic design by the ever-inventive Es Devlin. The expansive living room set is bathed in a monochromatic, soft blue light, with only a few scattered children’s toys looking lifelike in color. It’s as if we’re seeing the past as a dream. Or, more accurately in this case, a nightmare.
Venue: Minetta Lane Theatre, New York
Cast: Carey Mulligan
Playwright: Dennis Kelly
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Set designer: Es Devlin
Costume designer: Jack Galloway
Lighting designer: Oliver Fenwick
Video designer: Luke Halls
Sound designer: David McSeveney
Production: Royal Court Theatre
Presented by Minetta Lane Theatre, Liberty Theatres, Audible