We call it love, but deep down inside we know it’s something darker and more complicated. We love our pets, we love our comfortable lives, and we may love our children, but with our life partners we have a fluid, uneasy distribution of power. It is like the relationship the United States used to share with the old Soviet Union, but much more complex and dangerous. Love hurts, but the absence of love hurts worse. As Beatrice (Jenna Sokolowski) observes in this startling Carole Fréchette play, now being given a vigorous staging by the Hub Theatre, if you are in love you have a hand to hold when the endless no comes at the end of your life.
So if you are Beatrice – as Beatrice may be but is not necessarily – you hang up posters, looking for love. You explain that you are a wealthy heiress, engaging and intelligent. You say that you are looking for someone to interest, move and seduce you. And you promise a substantial reward.
And then you wait in your threadbare 33rd floor apartment, eating apples and sucking down bottles of water, until John (Eric Messner) knocks on your door. You let him in, and take his picture. You post it with picture of the other contestants – the philosophy professor, the pizza delivery guy, the actor – on the wall. And the games begin.
All good theater is the conflict between characters with clear objectives, but rarely have theatrical characters had objectives clearer and more monomaniacal than do John and Beatrice. She is so desperate for love that she would pay for it (note that she is paying for love, not sex), lie for it, and perhaps kill for it. John, on the other hand, is in it for the reward. He craves stacks of twenty-dollar bills sitting warm in his pocket. He understands them. He understands how to earn them. He understands nothing else.
They are singularly unlovable. Beatrice is an incessant chatterbox, self-involved to such an extent that the initial task of interesting her seems foredoomed, so interested is she in herself. John, surly and truculent, is animated only when he has the scent of his reward. That they push on is a tribute to the power their goals have for them: love for Beatrice, money for John.
Director Helen Pafumi has made spot-on casting choices. Sokolowski, with her huge, hectic eyes is like a love consumptive, and you can feel the frustrated desire radiating from her like heat. Messner, a large, athletic-looking man, is an ideal physical type to play a heavy, although he is too gifted an actor to be put into such a narrow container. The struggle of their two fully-realized characters parallels the struggle of fantasy against reality, of life against death.
Specifically: Beatrice imagines that they have a life together, and tries to draw John into that fantasy. John morosely bumps up against reality: he has not been given his reward, and he tries to convince Beatrice that this failure has consequences.
And yet – and yet. There is something subtly subversive about this play. Perhaps it’s nothing more than the fragile glass panels on the front door (set by Elizabeth McFadden) – an incongruous element in a locked-room drama. Or perhaps it’s the brief, affectionate smile which plays on John’s lips as he takes Beatrice’s picture. Or maybe it’s the startling way the standoff ends. Or maybe it’s the gorgeous poetic soliloquies, too polished to be spontaneous utterances.
But now I’m sorry I didn’t check to see whose faces were on those pictures.
Hub Theatre’s production of John & Beatrice runs thru May 5, 2012 at the John Swayze Theatre, 9431 Silver King Court, Fairfax, VA
John & Beatrice
By Carole Fréchette, translated by John Murrell
Directed by Helen Pafumi
Produced by Hub Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes