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Never Land

Phyllis Nagy is a New Yorker who has spent the larger part of her playwriting career in Britain, and is now a naturalized citizen of the U.K. (Her poetical and unflinchingly brutal works were embraced by Stephen Daldry’s Royal Court Theatre, and she currently has commissions with both the National Theatre of Great Britain and the Royal Shakespeare Company.) She’s here to direct the U.S. premiere of her play, Never Land, a comedy of sorts that grapples firmly and unsentimentally with many facets of exile. In the rain-soaked south of France, a native, Henri Joubert (Bradley Fisher), his wife, Anne (Lisa Pelikan), and their beautiful, aging daughter, Elisabeth (Katherine Tozer), possess the language, dialect and attitudes of upwardly mobile Brits. They simply lack the lineage and resources — what with Henri working as a hired hand at the local perfumery for a jocular, world-wise boss (William Dennis Hunt). Henri’s woes are compounded by his masochistic daughter’s engagement to a presumptuous black man (William Christopher Stephens), and by Michael’s offer to sweep her out of France — an offer Henri’s wife envies and covets. Henri also has an offer — or, like his daughter, he believes he does. An Englishman, Nicholas Caton-Smith (Christopher Shaw), who lives half the year in France, runs a series of bookshops in lackluster British cities. Henri believes that his future happiness lies in managing one of his neighbor’s shops in Bristol. (Shannon Holt has a beguiling, twitchy humor as Caton-Smith’s poodle of a wife.) The murkiness of these promises forms the strategically wobbling axis of Nagy’s Absurdist and ultimately despondent comedy, which speaks as much in symbols and dreams as it does in the gently unfolding story — not unlike a latter-day Woyzeck. The family portraits that decorate Frederica Nascimento’s stark set are removed, one by one, as the scenes progress, as the rain pours down unrelentingly. The comedy is lyrical, urbane and erotically charged (largely by Swinda Reichelt’s silky costumes), yet technical problems intrude upon what should be a kind of haunting. In one scene, the sound of the rain is so severe, crucial dialogue becomes muffled. Moreover, the play’s flow depends on a descent from a comedy of British manners into the marsh created by the emotional and atmospheric tempests of a foreign land. Despite the caliber of the actors, the blithe and witty repartee of Act 1 is more mannered than crackling, giving the production a layer of artifice it can ill afford, with its already built-in shifts to the laconic and the violent. This beautiful, difficult play deserves a fully accomplished production to match its brilliance. It could approach that standard as its run progresses.
Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Starts: Oct. 8. Continues through Nov. 15, 2009

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