Inside his purposefully isolated Alaskan cabin and bundled under blankets, Henry Harry is in a deep sleep when he is disturbed by a series of panicked knocks at his door. Enter Rosannah DeLuce incongruously dressed in full bridal attire, mascara running down her face and talking a mile a minute. Thus begins Brilliant Traces, a two-character fantasy currently vying for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards for Off-Off Broadway.
The set-up is deliberately absurd and yet much of their exchange is rooted in genuine personal tragedy. This asymmetrical construction runs throughout the work. Perpetual loner Henry is clearly unused to casual conversation. Yet it becomes equally obvious that he is a caregiver who instinctively reaches out to others when given the opportunity. Rosannah describes herself in rapid succession as having felt encased in ice and too warm, propelled forward and completely stuck. All these states are equally true for her.
As directed by creative impresario Joshua Warr, the piece starts slow, then moves along for the remainder of the 90 minute runtime. Warr’s production team is strong. Matthew S. Crane’s icicle covered cabin with its unadorned walls and spartan furniture is almost a third character. Paul T. Kennedy’s lighting adds mood and supports the passage of time. Costumes by Todd Trosclair are appropriately sporty and simple, except of course for the shiny gown and shoes. No program credit is given for sound design, which is a shame given the important role played by whistling wind that had me snuggling under my coat. Both Alyssa May Gold and Blake Merriman successfully lean into their characters’ duplexity. Gold — an understudy for Broadway’s Arcadia — brings a rawness even to the most farcical of her lines. Merriman leverages the quickness developed in improvisation training with the Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City to make Henry’s unexpected turns feel more plausible.
The script is intriguing, but not without problems. By withholding deeper truths in order to have a big reveal, Cindy Lou Johnson has her characters speaking in circles much of the time. Instead of deep story, Ms. Johnson simulates forward motion, shading the surface by having the same lines reappear with different context. For example, “I cooked your shoes” is delivered by turns as comic, menacing, and sad. Using rotating emotional filters is an interesting construct that gives the script a fairytale quality. The challenge with Ms. Johnson’s technique is that it’s a block to audience involvement. Uncomfortable chuckles and even a few talk-backs peppered the evening. I never forgot for moment that I was watching a play about two people rather than being swept away by connection to the emotional life within the fantasy.
There is also an issue with how well the relationship between Harry and DeLuce has traveled through time. Originally produced in 1989 by Circle Repertory Company, the piece has several anger-fueled fight scenes choreographed by Alberto Bonilla. Whether you are able to accept these moments as intended or see two people in need of anger management therapy will depend on your tolerance for such things against the backdrop of #MeToo and #Timesup. Rosannah needs to be alluring enough to pull Henry back to civilization. By the same token, Henry needs to inspire trust so that Rosannah can get grounded again. But even back in the 1970s, self-help guru John Bradshaw claimed that most people would walk into a room and find connection with the least appropriate person present.
Rosannah and Henry’s odd relationship touchingly illustrates that everyone needs to be seen to feel truly alive. With communication, parallels can be drawn between any two human stories. The current incarnation of Brilliant Traces is presented by the director’s own Art of Warr Productions in association with Ruddy Productions and runs through March 4 at The Workshop Theater. Tickets are $25 and are available at www.brownpapertickets.com