By Lauren Yarger
When dowdy, painfully shy Adelaide Pinchin (Andrea Maulella) meets dashing, smooth-talking, George Love (Mark Shanahan) it's love at first sight -- for him! Or is it? All is not what it seems in Karoline Leach's play Tryst, a taut, brooding, romance thriller full of creepy twists and turns that make you squirm and keep you on The Edge of your seat wondering what will happen next and whether two very sad people can find happiness together.
Earning her living as a milliner, Adelaide, the embodiment of low self esteem, keeps herself busy in the back room with other shop girls deemed unsuitable to attend to customers out front (one has bad teeth, another a bad leg). At home, she is a dutiful daughter, trying to please her parents. She creates hats that are, from tip to brim, exactly the opposite image of herself. They are beautiful, adorned with lace, ribbons, feathers and bows, but Adelaide won't even glance at her image in the mirror when she tries them. They provide a crowning condemnation of unattractiveness dressed in plain garb (costumes are designed by Thomas Charles LeGalley). Her only pleasure comes from the pretty broach her aunt left her and dreams of maybe one day using an accompanying 50-pound inheritance to start her own hat shop or to travel to Venice.
One day, when Adelaide ventures out to place a hat in the shop’s front window, she catches George's eye and he begins a whirlwind pursuit of the astonished woman. She quickly falls for the charming man. He tells her he is a military attaché who has traveled the world and lives on a small allowance given to him by an elderly aunt who forbids him to marry. Quickly declaring a love that can't be quelled, he convinces Adelaide to leave behind the drudgery of work and home and run away with him. She grabs a bag -- and her bankbook, at the request of her “temporarily embarrassed” suitor – so they can elope.
Michael Schweikardt's set nicely changes from the shop with a backdrop of muted paintings depicting 1910 London to a boarding house where the couple plans to spend their wedding night. Martin E. Vreeland's excellent lighting along with music underscoring dialogue and bridging scenes enhances the mood (Johnna Doty, sound design).
The honeymoon is over quickly, however, as traumatized Adelaide reveals the tormented past that has led to her shame and self-loathing. Conman George puts aside his oft-used routine of “scam ’em, love ’em and leave ’em” and agrees to play cards instead of claiming his marital rights, but some of his behavior arouses suspicion in Adelaide about his real motivation for their union. A game of cat and mouse ensues with each trying to out maneuver the other while trying to avoid the snare of a real love that could trap them, but heal the broken dreams and betrayal they have endured.
Joe Brancato expertly directs the tension and uses placement of the characters to visualize emotions. At first meeting, George observes Adelaide from afar like a stalker, then moves in for the attack. Her response is to back away -- physically and repeatedly. At one point Brancato has her toe-to-toe with George, but bending backwards form the waist. It's a wonderful depiction of the conflicted emotions she feels as she is unsure of whether or not she can trust him. When Adelaide unexpectedly sees through her husband and dominates the scene, she towers over a George curled up on the floor. When the characters try to gain the upper hand with each other, they circle each other like hunters sizing up prey. Brancato also puts the actors in the house from time to time to make the experience more personal.
It's storytelling at its best, done through solid performance from both actors and visual execution of what the characters feel. It’s also the result of practice making perfect. Brancato, Shanahan and Maulella have collaborated on Tryst before – two years ago at Off-Broadway’s Irish Rep and in 2008 at Westport Country Playhouse (Maulella’s performance won her the Connecticut Critics Circle award for Outstanding Actress in a Play).
The audience gets involved too – gasping at unexpected and shocking plot twists. I won’t give any of them away, but I can report that after the show several audience members were joking that the theater ought to post warning signs for anyone with a heart condition. (Real signs do warn that the play contains nudity).
The psychological thriller, which replaced Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty on the original schedule, concludes the 2011-2012 season for TheaterWorks, which currently is seeking an artistic director to replace Steve Campo who stepped down in June for medical reasons. Meanwhile, associate Rob Ruggiero serves as interim artistic director.
Tryst runs through Sept. 9 at City Arts on Pearl, 233 Pearl St., Hartford, Conn. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm with weekend matinees at 2:30 pm. There will be a free matinee for college students and faculty Saturday, Aug. 18 at 2:30 pm. Tickets are $17 (student rush); $50 (general admission); $63 (center reserved). Call (860) 527-7838 or visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.