NEW YORK TIMES
September 28, 2010
Theater Review | ‘Brief Encounter’
Arm’s-Length Soul Mates, Swooning but Stoically Chaste
By BEN BRANTLEY
The acrobatics of love are performed in high style in “Brief Encounter,” which is surely the most enchanting work of stagecraft ever inspired by a movie. It’s not erotic, Kama Sutra-style contortions that I’m talking about. The physical activities that occur in this exquisite British-born production, which opened on Tuesday night at Studio 54, are both more everyday and exotic than that, routinely described but seldom enacted.
Walking on air, going head over heels, drowning in passion and, above all, falling, falling, falling in love: commonplace metaphors take on literal, revitalizing life in Emma Rice’s adaptation of the 1945 David Lean movie about a genteel, middle-class, almost adulterous couple. Once Laura (Hannah Yelland) meets Alec (Tristan Sturrock) in a train station, the laws of gravity are destined to be suspended. And two seemingly sensible, earthbound people will be, quite literally, swept off their feet and into the stars.
Created by the Kneehigh Theater, based in Cornwall, England, “Brief Encounter” boldly uses clichés to break through clichés. Lean’s film, from a script that Noël Coward adapted from his short play “Still Life,” would seem to have reached a point where it could be treated only with parody.
A study in sentimental stoicism, in which a barely trembling upper lip signals high emotion, it presents a hero and heroine (portrayed by Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson) who, having found their soul mates in each other, never consummate the passion that is probably the most transporting feeling they will ever know. The movie retains a devoted following, though people today tend to look sheepish when professing affection for it, like someone admitting a craving for a particularly sticky store-bought English pudding. Now Ms. Rice and her wonderful company have made it possible to embrace “Brief Encounter” once more with feeling, and without irony or embarrassment. Using the tools of music hall, classic British pantomime and story-theater — plus a bit of trompe l’oeil technology, via film projections — this production lets its audiences see a familiar movie with virgin eyes and, yes, fall in love with it all over again.
I first saw this “Brief Encounter” in London two years ago, and then again when the production came to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn last winter. I always remember it as a delicate, whimsical creation, and worry that it might not thrive in a new environment. Yet it consistently proves sturdier and smarter than I have allowed it to be. And the current incarnation, which arrives courtesy of the Roundabout Theater Company, feels to me richer than ever.
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