All in the Family

A provocatively sensual, emotional play about three women in love with the same man

A title like Triptych has the sound of a museum piece, a formal study in color and hue. In this case, though, it belongs to a new play by Irish novelist Edna O'Brien that moves like a nightmare through subconscious currents of jealousy and sex. There's nothing static about it at all, even if the actors do sometimes just stand there and talk, three in a row like the panels of a painting.

The female characters have generic labels — wife, mistress, daughter — and their problems revolve around a single absent man. This arrangement is the sort of thing that gives O'Brien trouble from feminist critics as well as Catholic scolds. Her work was banned in Ireland after her first novel, The Country Girls (which grew into a trilogy under the same title), scandalized the old Catholic guard in 1960 by examining the sexual desires and disillusionments of two Irish convent girls. Later she was criticized by feminists for showing women who were overfocused on men. So Triptych, assuming O'Brien spares her critics a thought, might be an act of rebellion — a provocatively sensual, emotional play about three women in love.

All three live in New York. Clarissa, the mistress, is a London-born actress who stars in major plays. Pauline, the wife, brings a bunch of sunflowers to Clarissa in her dressing room before a production of The Duchess of Malfi. Pauline tries to be as unruffled as her rival, but inside she's crumbling. “You made the wrong connection — schmuck,” she tells Clarissa. “I want my husband, every last bit of him!”

But Clarissa isn't the only rival for her husband's affection: Pauline's teenage daughter Brandy lives in a bedroom buried in a defiant mess of celebrity posters, trashy clothes, and a string of lights recalling the lights on Clarissa's dressing-room mirror. The husband and father, Henry, is a famous writer who spends more and more time outside the house, and Brandy blames his absence on her mother's histrionics. How — she yells — do you think he can work in a place like this? Why would he put up with your jealousy? Yet in a monologue she tells a tender story about going alone with her father one early morning to ice skate at Rockefeller Center, “and people looking at us as if we were lovers. Yes, lovers.”

She is, in other words, no help at all.

Lise Bruneau does understated and effortless work as Clarissa — composed and unapologetic about the affair, cool as a glass of gin, but suffering in silence because Henry can't belong to her. Julia Brothers strains at first as Pauline, but improves during her tantrums, especially when Pauline stands up during a performance of Clarissa's to holler insults. The show is The Seagull; Clarissa plays Ekaterina, and during a speech to the writer Trigorin, Pauline loses control and calls Clarissa an “English whore.” (Brandy has to drag her away.) Brothers finds a fierce channel of anger for this outburst, and you get the impression that rough moments in her opening scenes will smooth out during the run.

Tro M. Shaw is also a bit stilted at first as Brandy, but also improves, in her speeches. She has an instinctive grasp of Brandy's voice and does a terrific job with a monologue about sex; losing her virginity to a random boy amounts to a lonely tearing-away from Henry. She also pays a funny, petulant visit to Clarissa's dressing room. “Do you have any beaus?” Clarissa asks. Brandy says, “Yeah, lots. But they're all geeks. Morons” — and goes on to chastise Clarissa in terms that are just as blunt and rude.

Kate Edmunds' elegant black set divides the stage into three sections: the dressing room, Brandy's bedroom, and a living room downstairs from Brandy where Pauline mixes drinks and sits on a couch. Shakespeare Santa Cruz Artistic Director Paul Whitworth directs the play with a subtle hand and a calm sense of rhythm that can't quite overcome the melodrama of the final scene. What starts as an exploration of female archetypes takes a Gothic turn with a speech about the wild Irish sea, the sound of waves, and guttering candles. Nothing wrong with a little strong emotion — and Whitworth keeps it restrained — but the 100-minute show ends on a surprise that doesn't earn its closing cadence.

Still, Triptych is a beautiful script; it shows O'Brien in full command of her well-worn themes and yet feels like an experiment. It builds a poetic portrait of not just a woman, you might say, in three modes of heartbreak, but also of a shadowy man who never sets foot onstage. His absence becomes the most salient part of the play. “My work is concerned with loss as much as with love,” O'Brien once told an interviewer. “Loss is every child's theme … and writers, however mature and wise and eminent, are children at heart.”

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