The U.S. premiere of Poison, a widely praised import from The Netherlands by Lot Vekemans, is also the playwright’s American debut. Presented by Origin Theatre Company, the intense two-hander is now Off-Broadway at Theatre Row in a translation by Rina Vergano, directed by Dutch-born, U.S.-based Erwin Maas. Already seen in many other countries, it’s being adapted for the Dutch screen, and an English film version is also in development.
This compelling play digs into the guts of a couple’s personal tragedy while maintaining a subtle distance by means of delicately off-natural dialogue. Indeed the first of its three scenes reminded me of Samuel Beckett, as 40-something ex-spouses He (Michael Laurence) and She (Birgit Huppuch) meet in a graveyard to await an equally unnamed cemetery administrator. The only character with a name is an unseen caretaker.
Countertenor Jordan Rutter sings “Morgen” by Richard Strauss at the opening and between scenes, but his beautiful, mournful delivery only emphasizes the lack of sound cues under the dialogue and the resulting sense of utter emptiness. Against that void, the pair talk awkwardly, haltingly. She even acknowledges the trouble in so many words: “I’m finding this difficult.”
Who wouldn’t, under the circumstances? We learn that they haven’t seen each other in nearly a decade, since he walked out on her on New Year’s Eve shortly after the death of their young son, who had been struck by a car, then taken off life support after weeks in the hospital. These details come to light only gradually, after we’ve learned the ostensible purpose of the meeting: The cemetery administrator has summoned them to discuss a possible re-interment of their son’s body elsewhere, along with 200 others, because of groundwater poisoning.
Huppuch has an admirable capacity to reveal currents of feeling during the most restrained passages of dialogue, then to reach summits of emotion without ever going over their tops. The bereft mother has never gotten over her loss, while He has – on the surface. Laurence captures the tightly wound, intellectualized confusion of a man who has outwardly rebuilt his life over a wound that remains silently open.
Our understanding of her character blossoms when his innocent offer of a piece of chocolate triggers a revelation. We get deeper insight into him later, when they have both opened up enough to relive in conversation their mutual trauma – and the dramatic feeling has migrated from the Beckettian to the Stoppardian.
If this sounds grim, it is. But it sustains its energy most of the way through, and that’s the important thing. One of the most intense moments is a silent one: After He has give up waiting for the tardy administrator and left the cemetery, She sinks and puts her hands on the ground. Only in stretches of the last scene does the energy flag.
Jian Jung’s stark geometric set reinforces the coldness of the circumstances, with nothing but a featureless white bench and a drinks vending machine, all lit in subtle not-quite-natural colors by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (whose work has impressed me on at least one previous occasion). Maas seems to direct with a light hand, allowing the actors to appear to truly live their story. It’s an impressive accomplishment all around.
Poison is at Theatre Row in New York City until Dec. 11. For tickets and schedule visit or call 212-239-6200.