Love is chaste and hushed in Brief Encounter, the quietly romantic play currently in performances at Studio 54. Drawn from the David Lean movie by the same name and the Noel Coward play Still Life this inventive, inspired play about an unconsummated love affair between two proper British people is a perfect example of how somehow, even on Broadway, less is more.
Respectable housewife Laura (Hannah Yelland) and the gallant doctor Alec (Tristan Sturrock) meet at a train station where he helps her remove a speck of dirt from her eye. After another chance meeting at a restaurant, followed by an afternoon at the movies, the two are head over heels in love, even though they each are married to other people. A few more chaste dates – in a café, again at the movies, and in a boat in the park – are all they share before they nobly part ways and return to their spouses. But the presentation of this affair onstage, and the incredible passion held behind quivering lips and stiffly rigid backs, make Brief Encounter a haunting and moving production.
Adapter and director Emma Rice has woven music, puppets, and even acrobatics into Brief Encounter, resulting in a production that pays tribute to old-fashioned cinema while simultaneously poking fun at it. Laura and Alec’s love story is paralleled by that of the employees of the train station cafe: middle-aged Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin) who shares a salty, saucy affair with conductor Albert (Joseph Alessi), and Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson), Myrtle’s assistant, who is in the midst of a sweet flirtation with Stanley (Gabriel Ebert), the candy vendor. The contrast between a sarcastic older affair and the giddy raptures of first love present an interesting comparison to Laura and Alec’s quietly passionate and tortured relationship.
This highly amusing quartet also sing compositions by Noel Coward throughout the show, providing musical commentary to the scenes taking place. Atkinson’s rendition of “Mad About the Boy” is simply hilarious, and her duet with Ebert on “Any Little Fish” is thoroughly adorable. And the haunting, sensual rendition of, “Go Slow, Johnny” is the perfect foreplay to Laura and Alec’s first kiss.
Music isn’t the only addition to this adaptation. When Laura and Alec are ecstatically admitting their love for each other, they begin swinging from chandeliers. And film is also utilized, often presenting images of the ocean (early in the show, Laura admits to a passion for swimming). The show also mocks itself; when Laura is saying goodbye to Alec and classical music swells in the background, she stands listening, her face rapt, until she opens her eyes, realizing she is in her own living room and her husband is asking her, “Darling, can you please turn that down?” The literal presentation of metaphors may be off-putting to some, but in this cheeky, heartfelt, sarcastic and utterly sincere show, they simply work.
As Laura, Yelland gives a heartfelt performance of buttoned-up propriety that one almost expects her to explode. Sturrock is more outspoken as Alec, but also a true British gentlemen. The two share a strong chemistry and even though it’s clear they won’t stay together, one can’t help but hope they will. Their devastation at being parted is believable; after saying goodbye, Laura says, “I never want to feel anything again.”
The choice of location for the show is an interesting one; Studio 54, now a theater, was once a nightclub known for its excess in every manner. The juxtaposition placing a show about unconsummated love, unfulfilled passion and longing for what might have been in a building where once, anything was possible, is a fitting tribute.