By John Kolvenbach
New Ambassadors Theatre, London
through March 3, 2007
The New Ambassadors Theatre is host to the European premiere of John Kolvenbach’s refreshing romantic comedy, first seen at Chicago’s prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre in Spring 2006. Refreshing because in our deconstructive 21st century where cynicism passes for wisdom and the feelings of the heart are either severely debunked or over-indulged, a treatise on romantic love in the guise of an urbane sophisticated entertainment is most welcome.
In pitting world weary cynicism against romantic love, Mr. Kolvenbach is, of course, in the tradition of the great Broadway comedies of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s and like those classics, his play positively sparkles with wit (though, like Oscar Wilde, a little too showy and unfocused on the plot at times). But there is also an intense lyricism in the writing, which is both beautiful and moving and a delicate delineation of feeling which acutely captures the ache of loneliness and the radiance of fulfilment. Moreover, the shattering finale (which cannot be disclosed here) takes the audience to a profundity which those Broadway comedies never reached. And throughout the play the author displays an underlying vein of compassion for each of the characters. This is also reflected in John Crowley’s deft direction which elicits excellent performances from the quartet of players.
Busy professional couple, Joan and husband Harry are confused by and concerned for Joan’s brother Beane, an eccentric autist depressive who is exiled from life in his shabby apartment. When his apartment is burgled, they are even more bemused by his sudden romance with the mysterious interloper, Molly. His sudden flood of happiness spills over into their own dry marriage re-kindling their relationship.
Young Irish actor (and recent film star) Cillian Murphy gives a magnetic performance as Beane, capturing the innocence of the role perfectly: his eyes alternately fierce with longing or aglow with love; his body crippled with his unfulfilled emotions or graceful like a swan as he virtually takes flight off a kitchen stool as he explains his new found love to his incredulous relatives. His voice inhabits the lyricism of the piece and his whole being positively radiates the joy of being in love and, as a result, the joy of being alive, captivating and exhilarating the audience.
His simplicity is the perfect foil to the complicated lives of his sister and her husband. Kristen Johnston (as Joan) and Michael McKeane (as Harry) perfectly capture the world weary couple with laser sharp delivery and immaculate timing. As he quietly deflates his wife’s post-work stress, Mr. McKeane gently throws out one-liners to the audience like an experienced angler but throughout the play hints at the wisdom behind the world weariness. Meanwhile Miss Johnston, prowls around the kitchen in a hyper-active haze, wine glass in hand, the archetype of managerial angst. Yet in the midst of her firecracker performance she never lets the audience forget her deep concern and love for her brother.
As Molly, the lady burglar, film actress Neve Campbell brings an impishness to the role which is both charming and alluring, despite lacking variety of tone vocally. Nevertheless, in what is the most difficult role in the play, she is able to embody the antithesis of being at once fresh and innocent (like some 21st Century Peter Pan – a role which she would excel in) and hard boiled and feisty. In their scenes together, she more than matches Mr. Murphy’s lyrical intensity and together they generate dynamic emotional excitement.
Overall this play is the perfect antidote to 21st Century blues. As a character says in Marcel Carne’s 1945 film masterpiece Les Enfants Du Paradis: ‘L’amour, l’amour est tres simple!’ John Kolvenbach’s comedy is a timely reminder that even though life has become even more complicated, love remains simple - and redeeming.