At a Lonely Hotel, Two Lives That Overlapped
‘Good With People’ at 59E59 Theaters
By BEN BRANTLEY
Published: April 3, 2013
Be warned in advance that there’s no inoculation against the viral effects of “Good With People,” David Harrower’s beautiful, deceptive wisp of a play at 59E59 Theaters. Though this two-character Scottish drama, which opened on Wednesday night as part of the Brits Off Broadway series, is less than an hour long, it is likely to have an enduring and varied afterlife in the shadows of your mind.
If that makes “Good With People” sound like a ghost story, it is in a sense, though it contains no elements of the classically supernatural. It is instead a story of how people haunt their own lives, failing to be entirely present, no matter where they are. Or with whom. Mr. Harrower’s title is a dark joke of the cosmic variety, since being good with people is, by his severe but forgiving standards, an unobtainable virtue.
It feels appropriate that the only people we meet in this play, directed with light and icy fingers by George Perrin, work in what are considered people-oriented professions. Helen (Blythe Duff) runs the desk at a Scottish hotel, inaccurately named the Seaview. Evan (Andrew Scott-Ramsay) is a nurse.
He is also the only guest in the town’s only hotel when he shows up one morning, though it is high season. Helen recognizes Evan’s name, and the two come into focus for each other as hazy, vaguely hurtful figures from a mutual chapter in their pasts. Helen reminds Evan that he once knew her son, Jack Hughes. Evan mishears her, or pretends to. “J’accuse?” he answers.
Sara Krulwich/NY Times
An empty hotel by the water (a loch); a man and a woman with a shared history and some unfinished business: this is the stuff of many a familiar fictional idyll, romantic or spooky or suspenseful. Holding true to that form, the plot will lead into a cross-fire of recriminations amid a slow, steady buildup of sexual tension. But you don’t expect what happens to happen — that is, if it really does happen, which is debatable.
Seducing an audience by the slow, blurred divulgence of information is a specialty of Mr. Harrower. This was evident in his best-known work, the brilliant “Blackbird,” staged at the Manhattan Theater Club in 2007 and one of the most powerful dramas of this century. That play too was essentially a protracted dialogue between a man and a woman, who in that case turned out to have had a sexual relationship when the woman was still a girl.
The bonds that connect Helen and Evan in “Good With People” aren’t anywhere near as strong or as visceral. This allows Mr. Harrower greater latitude in considering how we connect, or fail to, with others. His canvas is surprisingly wide here, touching on bullying (both by schoolchildren and, wait for it, members of the Taliban), small-town class hierarchies, military life, the divisive existence of a nuclear base, foreign wars, one-night stands and a local wedding.
These disparate subjects come up without strain in Helen and Evan’s conversation. They all relate quite specifically to two lives that have only on occasion overlapped. But the talk subtly nudges you into thinking about the failure of most social structures and the poignant hopes for comfort and security that we pour into them.
If the dialogue is mostly naturalistic, the staging is not. Beneath the words Helen and Evan exchange, a whole other relationship is taking place.
It is given life in an extraordinary series of tableaus that find the characters suddenly illuminated, crouched fetally or reaching out or dancing together clumsily in a state of mutual surprise. These movements are both precise and hauntingly elliptical, reminiscent of the subliminal choreography of Steven Hoggett on “Black Watch“ and “Once.”
Ms. Duff and Mr. Scott-Ramsay are perfection. They expertly embody characters who are confined and isolated by class, age and gender. At the same time they seem to belong to a world of shadows, a Jungian realm conjured by the masterly lighting of Tim Deiling, the soundscape of Scott Twynholm and the set and costume design of Ben Stones, which only seem simple.
Though its length is about 55 minutes, “Good With People” leaves you feeling far from empty. For all the phantasmal effects of its staging, it is a dense work, and you may find yourself sorting through lines and images later in a way you seldom do after a more conventional full-length play.
There’s been talk of a return of interest in the short story. And I don’t think it’s just because of our much lamented shrinking attention spans. A first-class short story — especially from a master like Alice Munro or William Trevor — forces us to focus and savor in ways novels usually do not.
Surely there’s room on the stage these days for the dramatic equivalent of great short stories, for plays that make concentrated use of theatrical methods to distill ineffable thoughts and feelings. “Good With People” is short, but it’s anything but small.
Good With People
By David Harrower; directed by George Perrin; designed by Ben Stones; sound by Scott Twynholm; lighting by Tim Deiling; stage manager, Raynelle Wright; production manager, Kevin McCallum. A Traverse Theater Company and Datum Point, in association with Paines Plough, production, presented by 59E59 Theaters, Elysabeth Kleinhans, artistic director; Peter Tear, executive producer, as part of the 2013 Brits Off Broadway festival and Scotland Week. At the 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, Manhattan; (212) 279-4200; 50e59.org. Through April 21. Running time: 55 minutes.
WITH: Blythe Duff (Helen) and Andrew Scott-Ramsay (Evan).
Link to the review on the NY Times website.