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A CurtainUp Review

I Have Been Here Before

What has happened before-- many times perhaps-- will probably happen again. That is why some people can prophesy what is to happen. They do not see the future as they think, but the past, what has happened before. But something new may happen.
--- Görtler. That something new, according to the Doctor, may be one of those great moments of our lives. . .when a soul can make a fateful decision.
Sean McNall & Rachel Botchan
Sean McNall & Rachel Botchan
Want a respite from plays without intermissions, restraints about language and explicit sexual scenes, or carefully detailed realistic sets? You'll find just what you're looking for at the Black Bull Inn in North Yorkshire, the setting for J. B. Priestley's I Have Been Here Before which is currently at the Pearl Theater -- the first New York production since a 20-performance run in 1938, a year after its London premiere.

The sitting room of the Inn presided over by Sally Platt (Robin Leslie Brown) and her father Sam Shipley (Edward Seamon), is furnished with comfortable easy chairs, book cases filled with books (probably lots of the "tea cozy" mysteries). The crimson walls are adorned with knickknacks and -- most important to this play -- four ticking and chiming clocks. You see, while the place looks as if much ever happens here, I Have Been Here Before is one of the prolific essayist-novelist-playwright's "time plays" (Time of the Conways, The Inspector-General), a tea cozy mystery with a time-traveling twist inspired by Priestley's readings of the Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky's theory about individuals repeating their life cycles unless they can seize opportunities to free themselves from repeating past errors.

The tick-tick-tick of those clocks is our clue that when Sally Platt is finally content with where she's placed a vase of fresh flowers, that she and her guests -- Oliver Farrant (Sean McNall), a schoolmaster and Walter Ormund (Dan Daily), a hard-drinking, type A business man, and his much younger wife Janet (Rachel Botchan) -- are in for an anything but tranquil weekend (symbolically timed to precede Whitsuntide or Pentecost). True to Priestley's style, the storm in the calm arrives via a stranger -- in this case an intense stranger, a German refugee doctor named Görtler (Dominic Cuskern) whose presence immediately casts an uneasy aura of déjà vu over Ormond's already tense state of mind, his wife's discontent and the obvious attraction between her and the young schoolmaster (not to mention raising the specter of the Inn's inhabitants as symbols of England faced with choices about dealing with the threat of Nazi Germany).

While everyone, including the innkeeper, is initially hostile to Görtler, his theory in relation to the unhappy Walter Ormond, the rather sudden love affair and the innkeeper's concern about her son becomes increasingly persuasive. I won't attempt to explain it all here since this is, after all, a mystery, but more importantly, because the reason to see the Pearl production is not the plot -- which is rather rickety in its use of the good doctor as too much of a coat rack on which to hang Priestley's fascination with this subject.

As I stated at the outset, I Have Been Here Before is a chance for treating yourself to some theatrical nostalgia. Director Gus Kaikkonen, who also helmed the Pearl's excellent revival of Heartbreak House (our review) once again displays his affinity for giving plays written with lots of stage directions to breathe like a fine old wine. The actors, mostly Pearl regulars, get into the old fashioned spirit with good results, though the otherwise excellent Robin Leslie Brown might have heeded Priestley's stage directions to "speak in a north-country accent, but not too broad."

The design team has outdone itself. Anyone starting a bed and breakfast might well be inspired to borrow some touches from Takeshi Kata's bully set for the Black Bull Inn.

It would be great if the invaluable Pearl would mount a production of Dangerous Corners, another infrequently produced and less artificially conceived Priestley play -- or, if they took the plunge and put on his biggest hit The Inspector Calls.
Written by J. B. Priestley
Directed by Gus Kaikkonen
Cast: Robin Leslie Brown, Rachel Botchan, Dominic Cuskern, Dan Daily, Sean McNall, Edward Seamon
Set Design: Takeshi Kata
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Design: Mark Huang
Music: Todd Almond
Dialect Coach: Amy Stoller
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, includes 2 intermissions
The Pearl Theatre Company, Theatre 80, 80 St. Marks Place (at 1st Avenue, East Village) (212) 598-9802
2/19/05 to 3/27/05; opened 2/27/05
Tue at 7pm; Wed, Sat - Sun at 2pm; Thu - Sat at 8pm
Tickets: $40; $50 (Fri-Sun) TDF Accepted 15 minutes before curtain based on availability Student and Senior rush tickets available 30 minutes before curtain based on availability.
Running Time: .Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 27th performance
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