Review by Michael Bracken
One Hand Clapping, part of the Brits off-Broadway series at 59E59, gives you a whiff of where it’s headed right from the get-go, without spoiling the joys of discovering its decidedly dark and devastatingly droll plot. The play has barely begun when Howard (Oliver Devoti) tells his wife Janet (Eve Burley) that he’d like to live like a millionaire for a month and then “snuff it….because there’s not all that much to live for, is there?”
Janet, who narrates the black comedy and talks to the audience frequently, doesn’t share his pessimistic world-view. She’s quite content living in the English hinterlands in a modest house and working at the local supermarket stocking the shelves with baked beans. She sees the glass as half full and savors every little pleasure, like dancing with her husband and watching quiz shows.
Pert and pretty, wide-eyed without being naïve, Ms. Burley is a supernova, radiating energy that could light up a galaxy and does quite nicely with a stage. “I came out of school knowing nothing,” Janet tells us,” but if you’re a girl, and pretty like I am, you don’t need to know that much.” She’s not conceited, merely honest, and Burley’s interpretation of her is consistently delightful.
Mr. Devoti’s appeal comes in a different flavor. He doesn’t lack for energy either, but his is of the head down, eyes straight ahead variety. Howard is goal-oriented and determined, deathly serious to Ms. Burley’s breeziness. Howard sets the agenda for both his wife and himself, and Janet dutifully follows along for most of the ride. His obsession with sticking to plan with unrelenting intensity is quite funny in a low-key way. No detours for him. Upward and onward.
We learn that Howard has a photographic memory. And he learns, from Janet, about Over and Over, a cheesy quiz show with a 1000 pound grand prize. He thinks he can win. He does. He uses his other gift, clairvoyance, to help him play the horses and parlays his quiz show winnings into a very tidy sum. He becomes a patron of the arts, sponsoring Red (Adam Urey, who also plays the quiz show host). Red has eyes for Janet.
Mr. Urey is oily as the quiz show host and smarmy as Red. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In any case, Red house-sits as Janet and Howard are off for the States. When they return, Howard evicts him and turns his attention to implementing the final step of his master plan. Janet will have none of it. Her survival instinct kicks in and she outmaneuvers Howard, ultimately touring Europe with Red and, in a manner of speaking, Howard as well.
Adapted by Lucia Cox from the 1961 novel by Anthony Burgess, One Hand Clapping is not meant to be taken literally. Its tone is sardonic, its characters and situations exaggerated. Dialogue is pointed, aimed at the educational system, our consumerist society, and the dumbing down of humanity, especially by television.
In fact, small screen TV sets, mostly playing commercials, are strategically placed onstage. Janet often sounds like a commercial herself, a role that suits her perfectly with her good looks and perky persona.
Playwright Cox also directs, pulling the pieces together with polished ease. She’s helped by her talented design team. Meriel Pym, responsible for both set and costume design, keeps things simple in the furniture department: red leatherette kitchen chairs and a hutch against floral wallpaper feature most prominently.
Janet dons a succession of interchangeable, simply styled dresses. The stunner is her mink coat, which she wears at the top of the show, sitting onstage before the play even begins, and again when the couple goes to America.
Howard’s doom and gloom and Janet’s cockeyed optimism make an absurd pairing that mock materialism with comic brio. The play has little venom but lots of laughs. Nothing wrong with that.
One Hand Clapping. At 59E59 Theaters. 59 E. 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues. www.59e59.org. Through Sunday, May 31st. 80 minutes.
*Photos: Emma Phillipson