Brenda Blethyn in Haunted at 59E59. Photo by Jonathan Keenan.
BOTTOM LINE: The story of Mr. Berry, an elderly man yearning for youthful romance, is an overly labored affair that is just saved by Brenda Blethyn's nuanced performance as Berry's wife.
Mr. Berry (Niall Buggy) is an unemployed, aging lover of literature dependent on his less educated, equally aging wife, Gladys (Brenda Blethyn) for financial support. When Hazel (Beth Cooke), a starry-eyed elocution teacher wanders into his life, full of literary quotes and innocence, Berry is instantly smitten. He gives her the idea that his wife has passed away so that he can have her over while his wife is at work, under the pretense of wanting elocution lessons. He begins a fundamentally chaste relationship with her that is too obviously driven by a romantic nostalgia for his youth and that of his wife, who used to be a wildly beautiful and sexual woman. Gladys has the same yearning for her youth although she expresses it in a cruder fashion—which makes it all the more poignant. Ms. Blethyn breathes humor and pathos into every word she speaks and every look she gives. When Berry complains of fictional aches and pains, Gladys says "It's no good reading Hamlet — Hamlet will not help," and reveals more about her middle-class roots, practical mindset, and general bewilderment at her husband better than anyone I can imagine.
Edna O'Brien's script is erudite but almost too much so as all the literary allusions and repetitive scenes only bury the true emotionality of this decaying marriage. Despite a very sad early tragedy that informs their martial relationship, if it weren't for Ms. Blethyn's commitment to searing honesty in this performance, I wouldn't have been moved in the least. Mr. Buggy doesn't match Ms. Blethyn's level of performance although I believe he plays the character as well as it can be played. However, Berry is so thoroughly unlikable—a dilettante and an adulterer of old that I found it impossible to sympathize with him as the main character. Beth Cooke's performance is subdued—as it is meant to be—but as the third critical point upon which this drama turns, I would have liked to see her fleshed out more.
Designer Simon Higlett and video designer Jack James have created an elaborate stage between them with roses constantly blooming and decaying across the walls between scenes. The rose imagery, like the writing, is overwrought. It suggests themes of romance, loss, and aging that would have been better expressed with less writing and more of the sort of performance that Brenda Blethyn gives.
(Haunted plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59 th Street, though January 2, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM & 8PM, and Sundays at 3PM & 7PM. Tickets are $45-$60 and can be reserved online at 59e59.org.)