The Atlantic Theatre Company has borrowed from the past and come up with a British play circa 1997 called Gabriel by Moira Buffini. It’s a play set in a dimly remembered moment in British history when the Nazis occupied the British Channel Islands, one of which, Guernsey, is the play’s setting.
It has about it an aura of mystery, mysticism, fantasy, fiction, fog, beginning as it does in total darkness broken by the lighting of a candle as a teenage girl, Estelle Becquet, goes into some sort of trance and draws a “power square” on the wooden floor of the home she shares with her mother and sister-in-law. A housekeeper arrives and reprimands her for messing about but the girl remains defiant and swears she feels the imminent arrival of a stranger who will change their lives. As vindication for her seemingly wild remark, a naked young man does indeed wash up on their Guernsey beach and is discovered and brought to the house by Lily Becquet, the teen’s absent brother’s wife. Who is the young man? Where did he come from? He is naked, so nothing on him gives hint to his origins, and he has no memory so it’s not clear whether he is a Brit or a German, as he speaks both languages fluently. There is a Nazi officer in command of the area who insists the intruder is an SS member, the British family leader Jeanne Becquet is convinced he’s one of her missing soldier son’s comrades in arms.
Each of these characters is beautifully penned by Ms. Buffini, who has since contributed Dinner to the National Theatre, a play that served Mercedes Ruehl in America. Buffini’s latest play, Welcome to Thebes, opens at the National Theatre in London in June, directed by Sir Richard Eyre. She is busy writing screen plays as well, and we can expect to see her script on Jane Eyre, which is currently in production. The teenage girl in Gabriel, the uninhibited and highly imaginative Estelle Becquet is played with tons of energy by Libby Woodbridge whose only slip is the odd accent she’s adopted, which Professor Henry Higgins would have a hard time pinning down.
Her mother, on the other hand, is played by American Lisa Emory who never fails to seem to be exactly whom she is playing – from The Women to Present Laughter to Dinner With Friends to Far East, in roles that ranged from Park Avenue ladies to navy wives to suburban homemakers to British drawing room matrons, she’s always right on. Not only has she mastered the accents, she seems to transform her lovely form into most anything her characters need. She can be tall and slim or not so tall and far from trim, she can be blonde or brunette or anything in between, but she always manages to convince you she’s not acting at all – she IS. That of course is the best kind of acting, and even in this very strong ensemble cast, she is the female rock at its core.
She is matched by the original work of Zach Grenier as Von Pfunz (a name with comic implications that are not ignored), the complicated art-loving and humane German whose dedication to his cause is frightening (since the cause is frightening). He played Dick Cheney in David Hare’s Stuff Happens at the Public, and earlier this season gave us a remarkable Ludwig Van Beethoven opposite Jane Fonda in 33 Variations on Broadway. He is the terribly contributive character actor who once upon a time was the prize plucked from theatre by the major Hollywood studios – Claude Rains, Sidney Greenstreet, Thomas Mitchell, Frank Morgan, Charles Durning instantly come to mind — useful again and again in everything from high drama to musical comedy. Mr. Grenier and Ms. Emory make something fascinating of the central relationship in the play.
Lee Aaron Rosen deserves a new paragraph in this notice because, though he has years worth of worthy credits in theatre and film, his best roles have been out of my view, so for me he burst into this play as a new face, a force. Attractive, with features that combine all the best bits of Steve McQueen, Brando and Paul Newman, it’s easy to imagine his coming to major prominence in film. In this play he’s asked to be totally convincing as a Brit and as a German (his German sounds fluent and authentic), good enough at both to convince both sides of the equation that he’s one of their own. The use of him in the denouement is surprising and effective, and so is his performance. Patricia Conolly and Samantha Soule round out the cast of six with fine performances of their own.
David Esbjornson brings a rich background to the direction of the play, and manages to bring mood, tension and theatrical life to its taut script. There is one short sequence I question, one in which slow motion is used to project various characters’ reactions to an incident. It bordered on the artsy-craftsy to me, a minor lapse in style. Another, in which two scenes are played out simultaneously by two sets of characters is the least of Ms. Buffini’s accomplishments, seemingly written for the screen rather than the stage. Mr. Esbjornson staged it neatly, but as I watched the four players playing a sort of ping pong with it, I thought it the one section of the play that lacked the craft the author so abundantly shows elsewhere.
Small matter which hardly interrupts the flow of an interesting tale about a little known small part of the saga of World War II. Just the sort of thing a theatre like the Atlantic has been doing since 1985, and we’re all the richer for it.
Gabriel plays through June 6th at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, NYC.