By MARK BLANKENSHIP
One of the most striking things about Brief Encounter, now on Broadway at Studio 54, is how effortless it seems. A stylized adaptation of Noël Coward's play and screenplay about a pair of 1940s Brits who almost have an affair, the show demands enormous precision from its cast, who must interact with video screens, move in unison, and sing songs while playing instruments. Because they've mastered these demands, the production suggests a waking dream, where repressed feelings of love and longing get physically expressed.
You might think the cast needed years to get their performances just right, and in many cases, you'd be right. Most of the actors have appeared in multiple productions of the show, which premiered in England in 2008 and subsequently went on an international tour. But Gabriel Ebert, one of two Americans joining Brief Encounter for Broadway, didn't have nearly that long. He's playing the supporting role of Stanley, a candy seller who falls for a coffee shop waitress, and he had to get ready in eight days.
Yes, he only had eight days of rehearsal before he was in Studio 54.
"[Our director] Emma [Rice] just threw me in with these people who had been with the show for years and said 'go' with the scenes," Ebert recalls. "I was really scared at first because we had an invited dress rehearsal before we opened, and I was still making sure I knew where my next entrance was."
Ultimately, of course, he survived his baptism by fire. "I immediately had to start making choices about Stanley and committing to them, which was good for me" he says. "And Emma made me do my scenes over and over, so it all became familiar." He adds that he even drew a map of the theatre so he could think through where his entrances and exits would be.
The production's tight choreography also helped Ebert feel grounded. "So many of the transitions are so tight, and they involve sounds and lights and video, so they're kind of set," he says. "You have to make sure you're in a specific place every time, which keeps you from feeling lost or stranded."
But the show does leave room for an actor's contribution. Ebert says he's discovered "a lot of freedom" within the structure, and now that he knows the basic demands---make sure you're standing here for this light cue, bend your arm backward during this song, etc.---he's finding places to improvise. When Stanley first kisses his crush, for instance, Ebert might ramp up the physical comedy or the flirty sweetness. "If things are working or aren't working, we can adjust on stage: We know what needs to happen, but we might play something differently based on how the audience is reacting," he says.
And more than anything, Ebert has learned that his job is to have a good time. Rice told him that Stanley is "in a major key," meaning he's always boisterous, and when he isn't playing a scene, Ebert's usually playing the ukulele or the bass for a zippy musical number. "When I started, I didn't realize it would be so playful," he says. "It's cool being able to do all these complicated things and still have fun and not walk away from work full of pathos."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor.
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