Better known for her novels and stories, the Irish writer Edna O’Brien has crafted a number of successful plays over her long (now entering its sixth decade) career. Her newest is now playing as part of 59E59’s distinguished Brits Off Broadway series. Imported from the Royal Exchange Theatre Company, with Founding Artistic Director Braham Murray at the helm, the production boasts a bang-up cast including two-time Academy Award nominee Brenda Blethyn. A triple character study as well as something of a psychological thriller, Haunted is a doozy—and a delight.
Not much actually happens. Niall Buggy plays the memorable, smooth-but-aging Quincy “Jack” Berry, a Shakespeare-spouting philanderer who, though well past his prime and no longer literally on the prowl, retains his compulsively mendacious ways—especially when charming young Hazel appears. Played by Beth Cooke (in an auspicious New York debut), Hazel is a meek elocution teacher (“Have you ever had a vision, Hazel?” “I’d be too afraid to”) with a penchant for antique clothes of just the sort Jack has easy access to—from his wife’s closet. She’s the fresh breeze in the stale life Jack has sunk into with long-suffering Gladys (Ms. Blethyn), who, being the current breadwinner, leaves Jack alone all day with his books, his gardening, his imagination, and suddenly something a bit more real.
Desperate to kindle a friendship with his exciting new acquaintance, Jack spins a new yarn: that his wife has died, leaving her clothes for the taking and his time all his own. In alternating scenes with the two women, Jack reveals his changeable nature. Is he depressed or just pretending? Possibly both. He is pretense personified, fancy made tragically solid. Mr. Buggy draws the character for us with the utmost care, line by line. His pauses, his timing, his shifts in volume, the rapture in his eyes when contemplating Hazel—these in themselves provide much of the tension of the first part of the play.
A rampant Ms. Blethyn gets the biggest cheer at the end. In addition to being the cast’s biggest name, she’s also quite happy to chew the scenery in the climactic confrontation, and it is evidently delicious scenery. But Mr. Buggy’s bravura performance is the bedrock of the piece. Tugging at her heartstrings, pinching ours. In the first blush of trying to impress Hazel, he turns it full on: “Ever since my wife…I feel the toll of father time…abysms of it…I see Cassidy, an old chum…we meet equidistant between Epsom and here for our moratoriums…barely throw two words to one another, but it’s company.”
Ms. Blethyn’s Gladys is just as memorable in the end, though, a classic tough-but-bruisable old broad who ploughs through in spite of a raw deal, but ultimately rips herself open to reveal the raw wounds of what she’s been dealt. (Literally, in fact—last night she received a nasty-looking cut on her knee during the final tussle. It only added to the icy shock.)
It’s all bloody unlikely anyway, dreamy and nightmarish, patched on the surface with soap opera clichés; Hazel’s fate doesn’t make a lot of sense, and there are one (maybe even one-and-a-half) too many endings. But it all adds up to a tense and deeply satisfying story told via a wonderfully sensitive production, with a cast that provides a clinic in A-level acting from the British Isles.
Haunted runs through January 2 at 59E59 Theaters in New York.