Haunted -- Theater Review

Jonathan Keenen
Edna O’Brien’s play intrigues and frustrates in equal measure but ultimately falls short on emotional rewards.

Its lyrical descriptiveness, intoxication with language and devotion to storytelling give the London-set “Haunted” a lilting Irish flavor that’s not surprising coming from novelist and occasional playwright Edna O’Brien. But all that linguistic embroidery -- plus snatches of poetry and a shower of literary and theatrical allusions – clouds the poignancy of this melancholy love triangle.

Premiered last year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, the polished production directed by Braham Murray comes to New York for a month as the centerpiece of the annual Brits Off Broadway season. Its cast includes Brenda Blethyn, last seen on the city’s stages in the 2004 Broadway revival of Marsha Norman’s “’night, Mother.”
True to its title, the play opens with Jack Berry (Niall Buggy), a benign-looking figure in cardigan and corduroys, wailing “Stay... stay” at the ghostly images of two women seen through the translucent walls of Simon Higlett’s emerald green semicircular set.
In an opening monologue that establishes the flowery discursiveness of Jack’s conversational style, he recalls meeting and marrying the lusty Gladys, who clashed with his more genteel mother, causing a rift with his family. He left Gladys briefly for another woman but then returned to a marriage that, for him at least, had lost its glow.
That’s a lot of narrative to wade through even before the play gets going. It does so, however, when cash-strapped young elocution teacher Hazel (Beth Cooke) comes to Jack’s door in the outer London suburbs, receiving an angora sweater belonging to Gladys as added enticement to return.
While Hazel assumes Mr. Berry is a widower, Blethyn’s Gladys is very much alive, bringing in the couple’s sole income as supervisor in a doll factory. An early reference to Edward Albee finds vague echoes in the cryptic dialogue and absurdist tone of the Berrys’ exchanges, and more explicit ones in their childless void.
Jack navigates a tricky double life between the two women, each one oblivious to the other. He is reinvigorated by his afternoons of platonic pleasure and more than a hint of unrequited love with Hazel. By night, he placates and deceives self-deluding Gladys as she wonders why her wardrobe and jewelry collection keep shrinking.  
All three characters drift often into reveries about the past, like a trio of Amanda Wingfields, which gives the play an eccentric charm but also a nagging evasiveness. The drama is too airy-fairy to support much emotional weight.
When suspicious Gladys tricks Jack into revealing his daytime trysts, the devastating clash that should ensue (Eugene O’Neill is another significant reference around this point) instead gets smothered in fussy verbiage. And despite the play’s eerie set-up, its conclusion is disappointingly ordinary.
Part of the problem is also Blethyn’s large performance. She can be a delight in playful mode, packed into tight skirts and clingy knits as she flirts with caricature, at times approaching the campy extremes of a pantomime dame. But her arsenal of fluttery mannerisms makes it hard to buy the character as a real person in real pain.
Cooke is fine if a little underfueled with the charisma to keep us wondering about enigmatic Hazel, or to foreshadow her outcome. Buggy has the most demanding role and he handles it with grace and sensitivity. But all three actors are to some degree stymied by labored writing that layers on detail while withholding intimate character knowledge.
Mr. and Mrs. Berry were created for a television play O’Brien wrote almost 50 years ago, and in this revisitation, they are too overwritten to be affecting. They seem suspended in no particular time or place, in a dreamy past that makes the production’s inconsistent use of modern-style projections look incongruous.

Venue: 59E59 Theaters, New York (through Jan. 2)
Cast: Brenda Blethyn, Niall Buggy, Beth Cooke
Playwright: Edna O’Brien
Director: Braham Murray
Set/costume designer: Simon Higlett
Lighting designer: Johanna Town
Sound designer: Peter Rice
Video designer: Jack James
Music: Akintayo Akinbode
Presented by Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in association with Karl Sydow