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A CurtainUp Review

Love is the labyrinth in which and husband and wife arrive at the cliff edge, when an enchantress such as Hazel enters as unwitting catalyst; three people trapped in a universe of emotional hunger, colliding dreams, stealth and betrayal, a locus wherein 'lies madness'. — Edna O'Brien.
Brenda Blethyn and Niall Buggy
(Photo: Jonathan Keenan)
When Irish novelist and playwright, Edna O'Brien, moved to England, she said, "It was quite a lonely existence at first. I was stuck out on the suburbs of suburbia, but it was a world which fascinated me nonetheless-the thought of all those lives going on in neat, semi-detached houses, out on the margins and aching with unfulfilled desires".

In 1963, O'Brien wrote a series of television plays about two such lives— a middle-aged couple, Mr. and Mrs. Berry. Fifty years later, O'Brien revisited the couple in a new play, Haunted which was presented at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and is now running at 59E59 Theater as part of this season's Brits Off-Broadway Festival. It stars Niall Buggy as Mr. Berry and Brenda Blethyn as his wife, Gladys.

At the top of the play, Mr. Berry stands alone, a widower haunted by apparitions of the late robust, high-strung Gladys and shy, young Hazel (Beth Cooke), the girl who infatuated him. In her illusory style, O'Brien presents vignettes of both women that she weaves in and out of Mr. Berry's mind, taunting him with vivid mingling of past and present.

Hazel enters the picture when she comes to collect old clothing but captures Mr. Berry's fancy instead. When he learns that Hazel teaches elocution, he tells her that his wife is dead and offers to donate vintage clothing and jewelry in exchange for lessons. Gladys, of course, is very much alive and grows suspicious when her closet becomes increasingly bare. Mr. Berry sees his fantasies beginning to unravel and he risks losing both his wife and the captivating Hazel. When he finally remains with Gladys, they pick up their stilted lives, agreeing that there are boundaries "we do not cross".

Most of the time the playwright refers to the couple as "Mr. and Mrs. Berry," stamping them with a staid formality though at one point, Gladys longs for their more lighthearted days, wishing "to be Jack and Gladys again, not Mr. and Mrs. Berry". There are frequent references to their childlessness due to a miscarriage Mrs. Berry suffered years before. Like many of O'Brien's heroines, the barren Gladys was once a passionate young woman and wonders if the miscarriage was her punishment for having premarital sex.

Brenda Blethyn ( Secrets & Lies ) is splendid in the role Edna O'Brien wrote for her. Her Gladys Berry is amusing and also heartbreaking. She easily switches from cajoling manipulation and stern determination to feisty emotion. In their former lusty youth, Mr. Berry grew a red rose for his wife, "sturdy with remarkable thorns" which is a good description for the woman who now works in a doll factory and openly expresses her dreams as well as her frustrations about Mr. Berry's lack of a job, his hypochondria, his manic depression, his inadequate house-husband duties — and his previous adulteries. The fact that she is both independent and needy is poignantly expressed in a moment that has her explain "I have to know what's in your heart"

Director Braham Murray has drawn astute performances from the stellar cast. His focus is clear, leading to the mad inevitability of colliding desires and betrayals.

Award-winning actor Niall Buggy creates a compelling portrait of a man wrapped in his fantasies, shifting deftly from middle-aged troubles to the lethargy of old age. We see him at the end all alone, with his expression is vacant as he slumps in a chair still wearing cardigan and slippers.

Beth Cooke makes her New York debut as Hazel, the artless girl who unwittingly captures Mr. Berry's attentions. It's interesting to note that the actor playing Mr. Berry in the original teleplay was Cooke's grandfather Cyril Cusack.

Blethyn is perfect in Lucy Woodcock's mid-20th century costumes. Her hair, often protected by a silk scarf, remains glossy and stiff even when she is violently tossed across the stage in the Renny Krupinski's fight sequences. Blethyn makes the most of this intriguing character and when she is on the stage, there is no one else to watch.

The sparse staging by Simon Higlett highlights Gladys' doll perched on a high shelf and a carousel horse hoisted above the stage, descending only for the one scene outside the flat. The background is semicircular with transparent plastic doors that lend a haunted glow to the apparitions. Jack James' video projections of blossoms opening and cells dividing, reflecting various themes. Pete Rice's dramatic sounds and the music by Akintayo Akinbode add to the illusion.

Edna O'Brien captures a sad trio of characters, each with solitary desires, but she lightens the dreariness with appealing injections of humor. Haunted lives up to its name, an enigmatic show demanding audience attention. It is a show that deserves attention.

Book by Edna O'Brien
Directed by Braham Murray

Cast: Brenda Blethyn, Niall Buggy, Beth Cooke.
Production design: Simon Higlett
Lighting Design: Johanna Town
Sound design: Pete Rice
Video design: Jack James.
Costume supervisor: Lucy Woodcock
Fight director: Renny Krupinski
Composer: Akintayo Akinbode
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes with intermission
59 East 59th Street Theaters, between Madison and Park. 212-279-4200
Tickets: $45-$60. $42 for members.
Performances: Tues., Wed. at 7:00 PM; Thurs. Fri. at 8:00 PM; Sat. at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM; Sun. at 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM. Holiday Performance schedule: Fri., Dec. 24 and Fri., Dec. 31 at 7 PM. Sat., January 1 at 8 PM only. No performance on Sat., Dec. 25.
From 12/1/10. Opens 12/710. Closes 1/2/11
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 12/5/10
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