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Atlantic’s Gabriel New York Times review

Atlantic Theater Company’s American premiere of Olivier Award nominee Moira Buffini’s play GABRIEL opened last night Off-Broadway at The Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20 Street). 

“The climax of the theater season can leave a critic — and dedicated theatergoers — feeling a little bit dazed and sluggish. Although it’s by no means a ground-breaking work, the sheer polish, narrative dash and dramatic brio of “Gabriel” got my theater-loving juices flowing again pretty quickly.” 

An Assault on Hearts and Minds

THE NEW YORK TIMES – May 14, 2010

By Charles Isherwood
Just about the last thing you would expect to see on a New York stage today — or maybe want to see on a New York stage today — is a juicy romantic melodrama set during World War II. The musty attractions of the genre are best savored in the wee hours of the night, surely, when sleeplessness torments and Turner Classic Movies beckons. Or maybe in a downtown drag bar, where the plucky heroine is portrayed by a biological male outfitted with Joan Crawford shoulder pads.

And yet, improbable as it may seem, a tense tale of wartime intrigue and romance makes for riveting watching at the Atlantic Theater Company, where Moira Buffini’s “Gabriel” opened Thursday night in a taut, superlatively acted production directed by David Esbjornson. The ever-wonderful Lisa Emery, a New York theater treasure whose work is always worth seeking out, gives a performance of moving nuance and emotional truth as a British woman trying to protect her family from the manipulations of a German officer whose attentions she cannot afford to ignore.

Ms. Buffini’s deftly woven plot begins generating suspense early on, shortly after Jeanne Becquet (Ms. Emery) stumbles back to the small house on the island of Guernsey to which her family has been relegated. She’s elegantly dressed, and accompanied by Major Von Pfunz (Zach Grenier), one of the Nazi officers who have installed themselves at the larger house on the estate, Jeanne’s ancestral home. (Although it doesn’t figure significantly in big-picture histories of the war, the Germans occupied the Channel Islands in 1943, when the play is set.) 

The widowed Jeanne, whose son is in the Royal Air Force, inwardly seethes at the German presence. But her loyalty to kin and country does not extend to depriving herself of the luxuries that consorting with the enemy can provide. Jeanne was openly carrying on an affair with the officer whom Von Pfunz has recently replaced.

Slightly tipsy, Jeanne nevertheless unleashes her contempt in a stream of testy, flirtatious chatter that the major greets with amiable grunts, a few German words and an expression of hungry relish. It is not until Jeanne has casually let slip a crucial family secret that she discovers her silently doting major has a perfect grasp of English.

Ms. Emery captures this blood-freezing moment with expert simplicity. Jeanne’s glowing air of carefree pleasure taking evaporates in an instant. The golden skin seems to turn ashen, the careful maquillage of a middle-aged but still beautiful woman is suddenly transformed into a mask of fear and horror, and Jeanne’s insouciance curdles into apologetic subservience. She knows now that this man, whom she had been ridiculing for his unattractiveness, holds her — and her family — completely in his power.

But Jeanne is not the only member of the family who has unwittingly entered the danger zone. While she was out cavorting with the enemy, her daughter-in-law, Lilian (Samantha Soule), discovered a nearly naked young man on the beach near the house, unconscious and badly injured. With the help of Jeanne’s adolescent daughter, Estelle (Libby Woodbridge, making a terrific Off Broadway debut), Lilian has brought the young man home, where he languishes unconscious with fever.

Although Jeanne is terrified of taking the risk — particularly given her already compromised position — she eventually agrees to keep him in the attic until he recovers. The mystery of his identity deepens when the young man (Lee Aaron Rosen), square-jawed and movie-star handsome, regains consciousness under the doting ministrations of the housekeeper, Margaret (the expert Patricia Conolly). He cannot remember his name, or anything about his past. The enraptured Estelle, whose fervid imagination sees in this romantic arrival the family savior, names him Gabriel.

Golly! Distressed damsels, salivating Nazis and an improbably gorgeous mystery man with amnesia. It sounds like a surefire recipe for a cheese festival, no? But while some of the dramatic conventions Ms. Buffini employs can be classified as antiquated hokum, her thoughtful writing steers clear of melodramatic cliché, grounding the play’s events in emotional truth and complex characterizations. And under the attentive direction of Mr. Esbjornson, the flawless cast brings a rounded quality to each character, softening any stock attributes with emotional precision and, where possible, sharp humor.

Although the budding romance between Lilian and the mysterious stranger is among the play’s hoarier developments — it’s partly explained by his likeness to the absent Myles, Lilian’s husband and Jeanne’s son — Ms. Soule’s quiet intensity and subdued warmth infuse her character with a convincing humanity. Ms. Woodbridge is a delight as the intrepid Estelle, who makes still more trouble for the family by sneaking into the old house and making like a poltergeist, swiping trinkets from the officers and writing nasty messages on the walls. Ms. Conolly, a character actress of consummate skill, is well cast as the clucking but fiercely loyal housekeeper, who disapproves of both Jeanne’s consorting with the Germans and Estelle’s increasingly risky misbehavior, but would fight to the death to protect either of them.

Mr. Rosen has a somewhat contrived role as Gabriel — yes, the name’s a mite symbolic, as it is believed he’s a fallen pilot. Despite the memory lapse, Gabriel evinces a suspicious eloquence and flair for abstract thought. When he and Von Pfunz come face to face, they square off in a debate over the definition of truth and its relation to poetry. But Mr. Rosen brings an anguished, dark sincerity to this tricky role, making the ambiguities believable, at least in the moment.

The most engrossing relationship in the play is the deeply layered mixture of attraction and repulsion between Jeanne and the German officer. Ms. Emery and Mr. Grenier (a Tony nominee for the role of Beethoven in Moisés Kaufman’s “33 Variations” last year) enact their continuously evolving interaction with captivating rapport. With each encounter the tension between them grows, as Von Pfunz quietly asserts his power, without quite resorting to sexual blackmail, and Jeanne accommodates and pretends to welcome his attentions — as on some level she does — while rebelling at the humiliating position she is put in.

To  read the rest of the review: CLICK HERE

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