Tryst is a story of lies, theft, and the death of dreams, which is to say it is the story of ordinary life. George Love (Felipe Cabezas), or whatever he called himself, made his living during the salad days of the last century by pretending to love unhappy, unattached young ladies and by so doing relieve them of whatever little nest egg they had accumulated.
In this fictionalized episode from his depraved life, he has focused his attentions on Adelaide Pinchin (Emily Townley), a 39-year-old milliner’s assistant who imagines that she is fat. (She is not; she looks like – well, she looks like Emily Townley). His object: to marry her, and then steal her £ 50 (worth about $5,600 in today’s currency) and a diamond brooch worth perhaps twice as much.
Were Karoline Leach’s story nothing more than the story of a criminal’s victimization of a woman, it would be nothing but a melodrama – Gaslight without the gas. But Tryst, an off-Broadway sensation before it came to Washington Stage Guild, is more subtle and deep. As we, along with Adelaide, listen to George’s preposterous representations – that he was in the diplomatic corps; that he speaks four languages; that he was wounded in the Boxer Rebellion – we see the twinkle in Adelaide’s eye, and the ember of a thought materializes: who’s zooming who? The spark does not go out during the rest of the play.
This is a story of suspense, and so to give away any more of the plot would also be a criminal offense. But it is necessary, and easy, to talk about the sense and sensations of the play. For example, you will experience sensations of extreme vertigo when you realize how unmoored from truth George’s life has become. Caught in one lie, he moves on to plan B, which is also a lie; forced to explain himself further, he makes a confession, which you cannot trust either.
And what about Adelaide? As her objectives become plain, you are compelled to wonder whether her revelations were true, or only setups for that which she wishes to achieve. Both George and Adelaide address the audience directly in asides, which you assume at the outset to be true, but by the end you will have your faith in them shaken as well. The principal business of the theater is truthfulness, even (or especially) in fiction; in this story, Leach turns that axiom in its head.
In casting Townley, an attractive woman of admirable proportions, rather than an actor of size in the role of Adelaide, director Kasi Campbell makes an important point: that attractiveness is by and large a social construct. Here, both Adelaide’s imperious father and the criminal George use that construct to manipulate and control her, and it is Adelaide’s state of near hopelessness which brings her into her desperate situation.
Cabezas, who successfully portrayed a man who was both exceptionally stupid and nearly deranged in Round House’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, here gives a spot-on portrayal of George’sleaden animation. When he focuses his predator’s gaze on Adelaide, he is all charm and sweetness, but when he is out of her sight, a veil of indifference and contempt falls over his face, and we see him as he is. As time moves on and his patience wanes, the real George slowly creeps into the creation he presents to Adelaide, and so he becomes half-man and half-mask. It is an impressive performance, and marks Cabezas as an actor worth watching.
Closes January 27, 2013
900 Massachusetts Ave. NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $50
Thursdays thru Sundays
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But the real revelation in this production is Townley, who portrays a character approximately six million miles away from anything I have seen her do before. Townley has established herself as the actor of choice for tough, competent characters who you mess with at your peril. (Stevie in Rep Stage’s The Goat, or Who is Silvia?, Pauline in Woolly’s A Bright New Boise; Lizzie in Maria/Stuart.) Here she plays a woman who has been tragically compromised, by herself and by her time, and who seems born to be a victim. She is utterly convincing as all of that, and when the steel creeps into her portrayal, we buy that too. It is superb work; and if you are in the profession, you might consider going a second time to see how she does it.
There are portions of the story which drag on a bit, particularly toward the end of the first Act, and some of the explanations for character flaws seem a little too pat. You can heighten your anticipation of the truly boffo ending, though, by reminding yourself that everything you are seeing and hearing may be a lie.
Tryst by Karoline Leach . Directed by Kasi Campbell . Kasi Campbell. Starring Felipe Cabezas and Emily Townley. Scenic design by Jie Yu; lighting design by Marianne Meadows; costume design by Kirk Kristlibas; sound design by Thomas Sowers. Arthur Nordue is the stage manager. Produced by Washington Stage Guild . Reviewed by Tim Treanor