Ends Sept. 9, TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford, (860) 527-7838, theaterworkshartford.org
Cello and thunder usher in the first moments of Tryst, on TheaterWorks’ suitably claustrophobic stage, decorated with large black and white photo panels of narrow, twisting streets in working-class London, circa 1910. We are introduced via taut interlocking monologues to two characters who seem, at first, familiar types: the con man and the wallflower.
George Love (Mark Shanahan) is down on his luck and desperate. Having run out of money, he’s hungry and facing forcible eviction. He needs a new mark: a lonely woman with a little money laid aside who he can woo and wed and abandon, taking her nest egg with him. That’s his con, and he’s proud of his prowess.
Enter Adelaide Pinchin (Andrea Maulella): a milliner required to work in the back room because her boss believes she’s not fit for clients to see. George spins his web of lies and she’s caught easily enough. Soon the flat set opens up to reveal a more dimensional dingy boarding house room in faded brown and rose. On this battleground the two characters similarly will reveal more of their depths.
Playwright Karoline Leach is clearly familiar with standard tropes of Victoriana and such well made plays as The Heiress and The Rainmaker, but her interest is also grounded in our own time: Tryst gains surprise by exploring the psychodynamics of childhood trauma as played out in adult behavior. So the cat-and-mouse game is not as predictable as the cozy opening of the play might suggest, and a contemporary audience is invited to read between the lines as the characters discover and respond to each other’s secrets. This makes for engaging theater: part conventional melodrama, part contemporary thriller. The playwright also has a way with details, and an ear for distinctive ways of speaking, which gives texture and particularity to the lives depicted here.
Actors Shanahan and Maulella are well-matched to their characters and to each other. He makes Love an unscrupulous predator but also a wounded child. The character’s capacity for compassion surprises him and us and renders the play’s outcome less predictable. Maulella is slight of build and makes Pinchin fidgety and awkward in the early going, and smarter and more manipulative as matters proceed. This shift (which coincides some with intermission) seemed too complete too soon to me; it’s hard to say if the flaw is in the writing or the performance, on one viewing.
These strong performances are well supported with fine sound design by Johnna Doty and effective visuals, in costumes as well as sets. Joe Brancato’s direction is efficient: no time is wasted as we are drawn into the essential confrontations at the heart of the play. Haze and brief nudity are part of this show, which offers a satisfying night of sanctioned voyeurism to older teen and adult theatergoers—and may generate conversation about the characters’ back stories on the way home.