By MARK PEIKERT
The best plays turn into ghosts, haunting audiences long after the curtain has fallen. But for theatre professionals, a new show is sometimes just a job that will soon be replaced by the next job, the next show, and on and on and on.
Director Joe Brancato, however, has been preoccupied for 10 years by a melodramatic thriller set in London in 1910. Since he first saw a production of Karoline Leach's Tryst on the West End, Brancato has staged the play multiple times across the United States, and his second New York production is currently playing at the Irish Rep.
"I had seen something in the play that I was attracted to, but I didn't see that in the production," Brancato remembers of that West End staging in 2000. "And I wanted to meet with [Leach], and, fortunately, her words were, 'I agree!' It was one of those moments in life where you just have to jump off a cliff."
Tryst is a dark and dream-like encounter between two intensely damaged souls: George Love is a con man who marries lonely women and then absconds in the night with their money (after fulfilling his honeymoon duties), and Adelaide Pinchin is a stifled milliner who sees through Love's lies and still imagines she could be content with him. The current revival is a tight, atmospheric production that walks a fine line between winking at the conventions of melodrama (the audience frequently gets so caught up in the proceedings that they boo and hiss) and earnestly exploring the ways in which some scars fester until they become self-sabotaging.
First over tea and mince pie at Leach's home in 2000, and then across the Atlantic for the next several years, Brancato and Leach have collaborated in an effort to tighten and strengthen her play. They started with a production at Rockland County's Penguin Rep, long Brancato's home base, and then they followed with a 2005 Off-Broadway production at the Promenade Theater, where the show quickly became infamous for its posters featuring a muscular and shirtless Maxwell Caulfield.
"The next stage was the regional life of it," Brancato says, "where I did it with the current cast [Andrea Maulella and Mark Shanahan] at the Alley Theater and then sometime after that in Westport, and then most recently in Merrimack. And each time with a rewrite and each time with a different approach to things."
One of those new approaches came courtesy of Maulella's deliciously weird performance as Adelaide. Almost choreographed in its physical precision, Maulella's turn as the near-defeated woman revels in a kind of mute masochism. In one telling, repeated gesture, she strikes her forehead with her clenched fist, as if punishing herself for saying the wrong thing. The movement lingers in one's mind because of its total grace and seemingly unconscious repetition.
"One of the most difficult things for me was actually tracking the trajectory of the character of George," Brancato says, "because George Love is at best an actor's challenge. How do I on paper chart this? And then what happened, it blossomed for Mark and myself off of Andrea's [performance]. And we went on a rollercoaster ride of possibilities and emotions."
As Maulella and Shanahan dug deep into their roles in the three productions, the whole process provided what Brancato calls "the luxury of the opportunity to address a play, and work on a play, as it deserves. That's a rare opportunity, and I feel incredibly blessed with this particular journey because I've had the opportunity to hone and shape this piece, and hopefully it translates as passion and curiosity across the footlights."
Brancato, who has worked on other plays since first falling for Tryst (including the current Off-Broadway musical The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith) nevertheless keeps returning to George Love, Adelaide Pinchin and their doomed relationship. He may very well keep discovering things in the play for years to come.
Mark Peikert is the managing editor of New York Press and City Arts.