by Sergei Burbank · October 26, 2013
Playwrights on New Plays #12: Sergei Burbank looks at Lucile Lichtblau's new play The English Bride playing at 59e59 Theaters The goal of most theater is to make the audience forget that it is being blatantly lied to as rapidly as possible; perhaps the most audacious element of Lucile Lichtblau’s The English Bride (playing at 59e59 Theaters through November 17) is the fact that the characters’ lies are placed at the center of the play. The entire work unfolds as a series of mutually contradictory narratives -- contradictions that are not wholly resolved -- and it is a testament to the restraint and maturity of the work that these contradictions are simply allowed to stand and be dealt with, as all untidy aspects of life must be.
At the opening moment of the play, in semi-darkness, we hear an airport announcement of a canceled El-Al flight. Over the next 90-odd minutes, we learn how that flight and these people are connected. The English Bride unfolds as a series of alternating one-on-one interviews between Dov (Ezra Barnes), a Mossad agent/investigator, Ali (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend), a would-be bomber, and Eileen (Amy Griffin) his English wife. The interviews morph into recalled memories, as Dov -- and the audience -- are mute witnesses to the shared history Ali and Eileen recall in their interviews. The whirlwind courtship between Ali, an Arab-Israeli expatriate, and Eileen, maid at a London hotel, sparked through a random encounter in the park, unfolds through a series of vignettes sparked at the prodding of the Mossad operative. But Dov is an uncommon investigator: his approach -- and his questions -- point to his own agenda. He is not equally interested in his main questions of “why” and “how” the bomb came to be, and his growing emphasis on one over the other begins to color the stories he wants to hear.
The stories that Ali and Eileen tell are, indeed, unreliable: they don’t necessarily outline the mutually exclusive realities common to estranged lovers so much as carefully edited narratives designed to reflect favorably upon themselves.
The script is a mystery deprived of its central tension. Since we learn in the opening moments that the bomb doesn’t go off, the audience spends the next 90 minutes focused on how the bomb came to be. Propelling the action forward on such thin ice is a tall order. A winsome Amy Griffin -- supported in no small part by the lithe direction of Carl Wallnau -- goes a long way in meeting the challenge.
Griffin gives a dynamic, entrancing performance as Eileen, a Northern barmaid who, while drawn to the lights and promise of London, can’t quite articulate why. Repulsed by and yet thoroughly attached to her fatalistic mother, Eileen suffers from a particularly British torment: she is heartbreakingly convinced of her plainness, and yet demands more from life -- but feeling she has absolutely nothing to justify this desire. This toxic brew of ambition and self-loathing leads her full-speed into the arms of Ali, whose honeyed words -- whose mere attention -- sweeps the girl off her feet. The text and its enlivening are both earthy and poetic, and there are moments where poet and performer simply soar in tandem:
There's a lovely time before the end. I had no idea in the world about that. A grand surprise. The world seems to well up inside of you and marvelous secrets get ready to spill out. It's true. I felt ever so wise. But, before you find out what these secrets are, why you're, you know, it's happening. It makes you want to go back and back again to keep on getting to that point forever so that maybe someday you'll catch hold of one of those secrets. Although I doubt if you ever do. I didn't. But, it was worth it.Griffin is wonderfully cast in the role: no newborn naif yet painfully unworldly, her portrayal is pitch-perfect. Even though we are robbed of any overarching suspense through the play’s opening moments, Eileen’s recollection of her first trip to an airport check-in counter still manages to fill the gut with dread.
Ezra Barnes’ chillingly bland Dov is a solid fulcrum for the piece, dutifully serving his scene partners by eliciting more information from his interlocutors than they intend simply through ceding the floor to them. Michael Gabriel Goodfriend’s smoldering Said crackles with subterranean life.
The interspersal of active scenes, flashback scenes, and direct address to the audience are a mutually reinforcing patchwork that creates a living narrative. The final moments of the play lean perhaps a bit too much on an extended, if pat, epilogue that tells rather than shows; however, in a world where the stories we tell can’t be trusted, perhaps there is simply no other way to end this play -- and perhaps the lies never stop.