Humanity and vulnerability may be necessary virtues for partners in love relationships. On the other hand, predators exploit human need as weakness. For the confused, a vulnerable and needy heart can cause a world of pain and self-destruction. Two of the characters in Lucile Lichtblau’s The English Bride directed by Carl Wallnau discover these truths, for each is vulnerable and emotionally needy. Their flawed natures cause them to overlook others’ motives. Based upon skewed judgment, they take dangerous liberties pursuing goals which they dupe themselves into believing are tenable. At the core is their self-deceit and inability to discern the truth from their own lies and confusion.
Such is the fabric of The English Bride. The story unravels as a “romantic couple” exposes their individual stories of shame, base humanity and vulnerability in an attempt to worm their way to innocence, denying their intention to commit a terrorist act. What was the act? A bomb which never exploded was found in a suitcase the woman was carrying. Her lover, who planted the bomb, protests it was not an act of terrorism. If not terrorism, then what? asks Dov, called in to interrogate the two?
The answer to the question is the subject of the play, and by the end, though we might not be any nearer to the truth of what happened, we have a semblance or shadow of it. And we will have to be satisfied with that because the characters themselves are unclear as to their own motives, the motives of their “love” partners, and the situation they find themselves in. Indeed, the playwright suggests, we hide our own secret desires from ourselves so deeply, that we must discover what we are all about. And if we don’t know, no one will. This, she suggests, is not the most solid foundation for a love relationship.
The play begins in the interrogation room of an airport in the UK. Since the carrier was El Al, Dov, the Mossad agent, in a solid, well-turned out and penetrating performance by Ezra Barnes, must divine who is responsible for the bomb. Is it Eileen Finney (Amy Griffin, in a portrayal sometimes straining to be unappealing), the unattractive woman from Leeds who is brash, uneducated, coarse and funny? Or is it Ali Said (a believable and heartfelt Michael Gabriel Goodfriend), a glib-tongued, good-looking, uncooperative, arrogant immigrant with an obvious chip on his shoulder? Or did they both plan the daring action as part of some overarching event influenced by another group with more terrorist acts to come?
Dov’s mission is not an easy one. Eileen Finney and Ali Said who claim to have been lovers and sexual partners also vilify each other and refer to each other as untrustworthy liars. Dov, who has prevented them from seeing or interacting with each other, asks penetrating questions. We, like Dov, are engrossed in attempting to figure out who is lying, and if there is any truth in what each one is saying. In what ways do their stories meet somewhere in the middle? We listen carefully for their contradictions and watch any actions that would belie their speech.
The overriding question that threads through Dov’s persistent and pointed interrogation is this: If both are telling a shadow of the truth, is there any way to know for sure? Indeed, will Dov ever know who put the bomb in the suitcase and why? We empathize with Dov, but have not lost empathy with Eileen Finney and Ali Said. In their admissions of weakness and shame, they are like us. (Griffin and Goodfriend are at their finest in showing their characters’ brokenness.)
This is clever, brilliant storytelling on the part of Lichtblau, who has set up the parameters, then violated them at every twisting, turning revelation: we think Ali a liar, then he spills his guts about his life; Eileen waxes pompous, then tells us about her abusive mother. Dov becomes the father figure, the trustworthy one, interested and concerned for them. He calmly digs deeper with his questions. The characters in flashback enact how they met, their coupling, their intensity, and their care and concern for one another, though this, too, may not necessarily be as they have said. And then the playwright moves to how the bomb ended up in the suitcase and why Eileen Finney, the romantic bride-to-be, ends up on the plane alone without Ali Said.
Perhaps the mystery has been solved. We tend to believe it has. Dov apparently believes it has, perhaps. Certainly, culpability and blame are brought to bear and there is punishment. But then we discover that Dov, the avuncular, trusting and solicitous father-confessor, has also twisted some of the story of his life and other details, and in a weird kind of shock we are horrified that he has turned the tables on us. We believed his “confessor” role as did Eileen and Ali, and in the believing we duped ourselves by allowing him to prey upon our vulnerabilities and weaknesses. He, too, lied. To salve our shame, the playwright has Dov excuse us and himself by commenting philosophically about truth and ambiguity. It’s another clever turn and twist by this wonderful playwright who keeps us guessing to the end and after into the dark night.
The English Bride, presented by The Centenary Stage Company, will be at 59E59 Theaters until November 17. It is enjoying its New York premiere.