by: Alix Cohen
The Traverse Theatre Company has arrived at 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off Broadway Festival with two brief, one-act plays which are dark, playful, and wildly unconventional.
Respectable widow, Annabelle Love (Joanna Tope), is a grown up Sloan’s Ranger– an upper class woman with lifestyle traits including polished appearance, speech, manners, and attitude. She’s spent her not very difficult life doing what’s expected. At her husband’s funeral, Annabelle politely approaches one of his young, working class factory employees. Having merely taken advantage of a free day off, Jim Dick (Gavin Jon Wright), at a loss what to say, blurts out “He was a really, really lovely old cunt,” then flees, appalled at what came out of his mouth.
Annabelle follows determined to find out exactly what was meant. Jim tries to explain that “cunt” can be used as an inoffensive colloquial in Scottish vernacular. (?!) With the single mindedness of an etymologist, she begins to have hapless JIm sent to the factory office in order to discuss the nature and use of vulgarity. Addressed as an equal with elusive information, the poor lad is confused and embarrassed.
When he once again tries to stop meetings he cannot comprehend, Annabelle tells him she wants to learn her late husband’s vernacular, though, of course, there’s more to it than that. Touched, Jim resolves to “help.” At first, forbidden words like “fucking” and “cunt” are literally impossible to voice. Soon, however, they venture into her vocabulary. There’s virtually no reaction among her class. People don’t listen. Jim has a splendid solution for this. A curious relationship grows. Circumstances change. Annabelle changes. Only a foray by the widow into Jim’s life seems somewhat false.
The piece is a constant surprise and delight, at the same time warm and wryly wicked. Wait until you hear the colloquial distinctions between such as “dick” and “prick.”Author Douglas Maxwell writes neither broad nor clumsy even using a panoply of coarse terms that would be fluent to Lenny Bruce or David Mamet. Director Orla O’Loughlin keeps the pace tight and engaging with wonderful moments of recognition/realization.
Both Joanna Tope and Gavin Jon Wright are persuasive from the word go. Tope ably creates a self possessed woman whose mourning takes an extraordinary turn. Her habits are viscerally ingrained, her exorcism exuberant. Manner and speech are pitch perfect. Gavin Jon Wright offers a deer caught in headlights, an uncultured but sensitive young man whose instincts and patience reap unexpected fruit. Their relationship feels sympathetic and immediate.
According to recorded introduction by its author, Sabrina Mahfouz, Clean (Clean crime=no death, no blood, no mess) is a response to the lack of female action figures in video games. I wish they’d printed her introduction in the program. Ms. Mahfouz has an extremely strong accent. Nor is it necessary to know her inspiration until after this play as it sets up unrealized expectations. The piece reflects no robot-like action, challenge/reward system, or direct reference to games except for a prized computer chip. Only direction acknowledges the “theme.”
Three women occupy three wood cubes moving from one to another. Each introduces herself. There’s no fourth wall. Zainab (Emma Dennis-Edwards), is an Egyptian with a difficult to understand, London, street accent further compounded by hip hop phrasing. (Comprehension gets better with acclimation but continues a strain.) She’s clever and tough, if not educated, taking care of her mum with spoils earned from the illicit use of credit cards and pin numbers.
Rapier sharp Chloe (Jade Anouka) was raised posh until family money was lost, but rebuilt a fortune by smuggling precious jewels. She speaks and moves with sophistication and breeding. There’s anger just beneath the surface. Katya (Chloe Massey) is a Russian of self avowed inexplicit origin, “way too young to be ex-KGB” unless she was planted as a baby. A market manipulator first class, the pugnacious young woman wears steel capped leather boots and studs. Her accent is excellent. The three live well. Business is booming.
Normally suspicious competitors despite difference in expertise, Zainab, Chloe, and Katya are employed by unseen-by-us club owner, Caitlin, to wreck revenge on a man against whom both Chloe and Katya have serious grudges. (Zainab is on board for her skills) A computer chip containing the blueprint for a new, excessively violent, testosterone driven computer game “worth billions” is to be stolen from a well protected safe during a party. Each accustomed only to working alone, the trio nonetheless grudgingly agrees.
Things do not, of course, go smoothly. As we get to know the characters, unexpected bonhomie evolves while a cinematic, mini thriller is played out before us. The crime is wonderfully detailed and easy to visualize, its dangers infectiously tense. Zainab, Chloe, and Katya are skilled and unflappable, splendid protagonists for any novel/film/game. Lack of more specific character information is unnecessary to the plot. Playwright Sabrina Mahfouz has written an evocative, distaff noir with appealing flashes of sympathy. Dialogue crosscurrents are well calibrated.
Directed with sustained rhythm and energy by Orla O’Loughlin, the piece reflects a computer game with action/reaction approach. It’s rigorously crisp.
Emma Dennis-Edwards’ (Zainab) speech is so difficult, it’s difficult to judge her acting. The performer credibly manifests loyalty and common sense superior to her supposed betters. Because her character is both less blunt and less wired, she tends to fade in some scenes. There must be a way to compensate for this.
Jade Anouka (Chloe) is pungent in her personification, almost constantly bristling at something. Her feline grace and gimlet-eyed focus adds to Chloe’s presence. We immediately believe this person is accustomed to the best. Calculation is splendidly visible.
Chloe Massey (Katya) makes us feel her character teeters always on the cusp of violence. Gruff, matter of fact speech and masculine movement fits like a glove. Massey’s deadpan accent and commitment to the role keeps it from becoming a caricature.
Staging is low tech and confined, but in the end, highly effective.
Photos by Jeremy Abrahams
The Traverse Theatre Company, Edinburgh presents
Double Bill: A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity and Clean
A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity by Douglas Maxwell
Featuring Joanna Tope & Gavin Jon Wright
Clean by Saberina Mahfouz
Featuring Jade Anouka, Emma Dennis-Edwards, Chloe Massey
Both Directed by Orla O’Loughlin
Through April 27
59E59 Theaters 59 East 59th Street
Part of Brits Off Broadway