Invincible currently at 59E59 Theaters is a tour-de-force by Torben Betts, directed by Stephen Darcy with original direction by Christopher Harper. Presented by The Original Theatre Company and Ghost Light Theatre Productions, it is one of 59E59’s Brits Off Broadway offerings this season.
Playwright Betts selects a mundane situation of people being introduced to their new neighborhood and spins it so that by the end of Act II the audience careens into a ditch of shocking displacement. Life cannot be all fun and games and ridicule, especially when there is a severe economic downturn and one is forced to downsize and relocate away from a tony London lifestyle as Emily and Oliver have to do. Indeed, we cannot anticipate what lurks around the corners of ourselves and especially behind the closed doors of our neighbors, with whom we may have little in common.
The class divide around education, economics, and conservative and liberal/radical/Marxist views forms the casual backdrop of a disastrous few meetings between two neighboring families in a North England suburb. We are first introduced to the educated Marxist Emily (Emily Bowker is superb as a high-strung feminist who peels away the layers to reveal a seething emotional depth) and liberal-minded, posh, near-pro cricket player Oliver (Alastair Whatley gives an exceptional performance as the initially weak-willed, accommodating partner), as they argue about not getting married.
Emily abhors bourgeois, middle-class mores that stultify relationships. She will not even consider pleasing Oliver’s sickly mother before she dies. The assumptions at the root of their rants are largely humorous. However, Betts injects enough clues for us to eventually realize that Emily’s fears are more than Marxist chic; she is attempting to deal with inner guilt and pressure.
The seemingly good-natured, innocent-looking Oliver, who has pedaled along beside her for four years, keeping his mother in anticipation of their marriage, has grown weary of making excuses. We find their exchange ironic in the extreme; usually the woman wants the big marriage and party. Yet this is not who Emily is, and once more, though his mother would be happy to see them married before she dies in a few months, she will not get her dying wish because of Emily’s strident inflexibility.
By contrast, their neighbors, the sexy, uneducated Dawn (Elizabeth Boag in a stunning portrayal of developing emotional cave-ins), and boorish, football-loving postman Alan (Graeme Brookes is the believable, noxious lout whose kindness and love sustain and comfort), appear as if they had rushed to embrace the cultural folkways of marriage, children, a family lifestyle so they could follow their parents unthinkingly into the grave. The two couples could not be more different, and as Alan proclaims his love for his favorite football team and beer, he and Dawn appear to be shallow, flag-waving conservatives who mindlessly uphold blue-collar assumptions and chase them down with “bring their own” beer when Oliver and Emily tell them they eschew alcohol and have none to offer.
The playwright, director, and actors unfold the fireworks gradually. They also drop lightning bolts upon us when we least expect it, keeping the tensions fluid and random. We are not privy to the usual rants of liberals vs. conservatives. The couples attempt to be neighborly by avoiding dangerous subjects. And the playwright stays away from conservative cant, though in the first part of the play, Emily’s Marxist diatribe about back off Oliver’s marriage plans for his mom’s happiness is funny.
When the couples face off with awkward friendliness during a pleasant evening, their differences in education and lifestyles creep forward. Underneath are boiling emotions in both families, revealed as the characters drive toward each other to reveal their passions. For Alan, it is his cat Vince (Invincible) whom Emily and Dawn dislike, Emily principally because the cat is a killer and no creature is safe in Vince’s dominion which is everywhere. Talkative Alan also discusses his paintings of Vince, which he believes are special though they are hysterically child-like and so amateurish we wonder why he refuses to take the painting lessons he sorely needs.
We know the first dive into the ditch cannot be prevented when Alan persists in his demands that the talented Emily (her paintings have been priced at around one thousand pounds) provide her true opinion of his work, which he proudly shows as we cringe, albeit with laughter. Emily’s coaxed critique is hysterical. The loutish, jabbering Alan quiets himself into a sulk and his ire reveals an annoyance that runs deeper as he attempts to defend the great sensitivity behind his awful work.
It is a mistake for Oliver to attempt to defend Alan. Emily explodes about the importance of truth and their waste of an evening on banal conversation instead of discussing the “Western powers behaving like psychopaths, forever sending misguided, ignorant soldiers to murder innocent civilians in illegal wars!”
Alan and Dawn’s son is doing just that, and the remainder of the evening drills out the undercurrents which have divided the couples all along. Alan defends their son’s heroism to protect their freedoms so Emily can “paint her pictures and have all her clever opinions.” In effect he is lambasting her for being chic, unthinking, and hypocritical. Dawn tells her she needs to “have a quiet little think about that.” As Dawn and Alan storm out, Emily, Oliver and the audience are left to the silence of their own souls.
By the end of Act I Betts has initialized the themes he completes in Act II. Because of their night with Alan and Dawn and Dawn’s parting remarks, Emily and Oliver confront their griefs. It is then we discover why they have sworn off liquor, why Emily has immersed herself in radical politics, and why Oliver puts up with her mood swings, stresses, and odd demands. It is then too that we understand that Dawn is unhappy with who she is and how she measures up. One night with Emily and Oliver has transformed Alan’s and her awareness of self and goals.
The exchange has been revolutionary; the characters’ personalities change by the play’s conclusion. There has been a convergence. Which couple benefits the most is debatable. Betts reveals that Oliver and Emily have the makings of the wealthy, sleazy, corrupt conservatives they used to decry. Alan and Dawn have been devastated into perhaps turning from the warmongering they once embraced and sent their son off to partake in. And as the latter two confront that devastation, we can identify with the love, forgiveness and care that Alan, whom we once deemed loutish, gives Dawn. Heroism comes in many shapes and forms, sometimes initially unappealing ones.
Betts has manipulated us cleverly to look at our own humanity and the humanity of those with class perspectives and behaviors precisely counter to our own. Themes of flexibility, empathy, and tolerance are in the forefront of this production, which reveals the fickleness of human nature when circumstances change. Stephen Darcy’s excellent direction and the tremendously affecting performances by the actors in this strong ensemble piece reveal Invincible to be a complex, thought-provoking production that examines the best and worst of our prejudices and attitudes and the strength of human character required to be truly invincible in the face of loss.
You can see Invincible at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street) until 2 July. Tickets are available online.