BOTTOM LINE: An intense, compelling, and occasionally funny adult drama about the amorous foibles of six characters.
David Eldridge’s Under the Blue Sky — winner of the 2001 Time Out Live Award for Best New Play in London’s West End, among other honors — looks at the ways love hurts and heals. Set in England, the action of this taut and well-acted three-act takes place between 1996 and 1998.
Scene One opens in Nicholas’ slightly messy kitchen. As the lights come up he is slicing and dicing. Helen, his guest, has just arrived. Well-dressed and affable, the thirty-something woman seems nervous and it is unclear if this is a first date or if something else is going on. As the pair begins to talk, Nicholas [played by Stuart Williams with the perfect blend of charm and cruelty] tells Helen [a fragile, insecure Sarah Manton] that he invited her over because he has something important to say. He then makes what turns out to be a hurtful admission: He has applied for a new job and plans to leave the rough-and-tumble public school where he and Helen teach for the imagined splendor of a private academy. Helen is aghast, not only because of the political ramifications of Nicholas’ intended move, but because the shift shatters her dream of a romantic liaison with this charismatic chum. Denial meets miscommunication in this heartbreaking encounter.
Scene Two introduces Graham [Jonathan Tindle], a rigid and repressed instructor of military science, and Michelle [Elizabeth Jasicki], a seductive, hard-partying, and flamboyant math teacher. As the proceedings unfold, we learn that Michelle has just been dumped by Nicholas — yes, tis’ the same commitment-phobic Nicholas who, a year earlier, dented Helen’s heart. Michelle didn’t see the break-up coming and hopes that a one-night stand with Graham will make Nicholas jealous. Unfortunately, when Graham learns of Michelle’s intentions, things turn ugly and a would-be romantic interlude quickly morphs into something hateful. Both characters behave badly in this poignant tussle, leaving the audience to question whether either party is actually capable of aiding and abetting, let alone loving, another person. It’s riveting, if sad.
Scene Three takes a different tack and is in many ways the most powerful of the vignettes. Here, co-workers Anne [an elegant, self-possessed Christine Rendel] and Robert [a modest, unpretentious Richard Hollis] — both teachers whose lives have intersected with thefour people we’ve already met — are discussing their upcoming semester break and debating whether to go on holiday together. Although they’ve been travel buddies for several years, Robert not only wants to plan a trip to Italy, he wants their platonic relationship to become romantic. Anne is resistant. After all, she is 20 years older than Robert and worries that tongues will wag should she turn from colleague to cougar. That said, their tender banter is witty and love-filled and the scene is a showcase for friendship and camaraderie.
Under the Blue Sky assesses what it means to love someone and zooms in on the game playing endemic to many social entanglements. Eldridge’s writing is crisp and never lapses into the preachy or didactic. At the same time, the play hits a number of important themes, from obsession to the role of honesty in human interactions. What’s more, it’s a powerful and sobering reminder that sexual politics, gender differences, and emotional neediness collide in virtually every close relationship, whether sex enters the mix or not. Evocative and provocative, Under the Blue Sky affirms a timeworn truth: Love may not be all we need, but it’s one of the true essentials.
(Under the Blue Sky plays at the Kraine Theatre, 85 East 4th Street between Bowery and 2nd Avenue, through June 5, 2011. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8PM and Sunday, June 5th at 3PM. Tickets are $18 and are available at theatremania.com or by calling 212.352.3101.)