nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
April 14, 2005
The title Abandonment takes on dual meanings in the first and (so far) only play written by British novelist Kate Atkinson. Characters forsake, desert, and leave each other with dismaying frequency here: one of the central characters, Elizabeth, was abandoned as a baby, found in a shopping bag in a public restroom and later adopted. In the course of the play, several of its characters (actually, almost all of them, at one point or another) are abandoned by or abandon lovers. But they also abandon themselves completely to emotion, even when that emotion can all too quickly prove to be false.
It’s a neat literary conceit, a doubled theme that runs through and links the play’s two narrative threads (one in the present day, the other in the nineteenth century) as much as the fact that both stories take place in the same living room. But it’s also a conceit that, like much of the writing here, shows the author’s roots as a writer of fiction who hasn’t quite successfully made the leap into a new medium.
The play’s present-day story takes place in Elizabeth’s newly acquired living room. A young historian, still licking her wounds from an ugly divorce, Elizabeth is surrounded by friends and family as she settles in to her new life. At the outset, this group includes her sister Kitty, a defiantly promiscuous tabloid journalist; her best friend Susie, a lesbian geneticist trying to start a family of her own with her partner; and her mother Ina, who wants nothing more than to see both her daughters—one biological, one adoptive—settle down and have some babies. Over the course of the play, Elizabeth’s “family” grows to include Callum, the “wood guy” who comes to repair her dry rot, wet rot, and various other floorboard problems. When Kitty writes a story about the circumstances of Elizabeth’s birth in the hopes of helping her find her birth mother, Elizabeth meets Alec, a photographer with whom she has a torrid affair.
Elizabeth has acquired the apartment shortly after the death of Aurora Chalmers, an elderly woman whose family had owned the entire building for well over a century. For much of the first act, the apartment seems to be haunted by a mysterious woman with a candle, dressed in the clothing of another era. This “ghost” eventually ushers in the other plot thread, which takes place in 1865, several generations further back in the fortunes of the Chalmers family. Merric Chalmers, an impoverished lawyer, has married his wealthy wife Laetitia for her money, since his own mother, Lavender, was disinherited for eloping with a sea captain. Merric falls in love, or seems to, with Agnes Soutar, the Portuguese governess who is the heroine of the second story. And it is Agnes’s abandon, her passion for Merric, that eventually leads to the tragic denouement that will bring the two stories together.
Both stories are twisty and complicated and there are characters and subplots I haven’t even touched on here. And there are definitely some beautifully theatrical moments to be found in the interplay of the two plots. All the actors except those playing Elizabeth and Agnes have one role in each story, and these roles reflect on each other in many ways. Director Kit Thacker has capitalized on these moments very effectively in his staging. And the actors do a good job playing with the echoes between the centuries, especially Erik Singer as the two seducers (Alec and Merric) and Veronica Cruz as Agnes, the core of the nineteenth-century plot and the ghost in the twentieth century.
However, the writing in general tends to feel like the writer has tried to cram the same amount of not just storytelling, but also exposition and information, into a few hours of talking that she would otherwise write into a 350-page novel. Every motivation, every thought, every action, every piece of back-story, is explicated in much detail. It feels like Atkinson doesn’t want to give up the novelist’s ability to tell us what a character is thinking—so her characters say everything they think. It’s playwriting that hasn’t learned to trust actors, and therefore forgoes subtext. This hurts the actors—I found several of the performances overly mannered at the beginning, but I grew to think they were frustratingly hemmed in by the language.
I also think the play overall is hurt by director Thacker’s decision to adapt the setting to New York City, rather than its original Scotland. Although now the place names might be more familiar to an American audience, the speech patterns, the cultural context, the sensibilities, don’t quite feel American somehow, or at least don’t feel appropriately adapted for New York. (Not to mention that I have a hard time imagining how a recently divorced twenty-something historian, no matter how frugal or successful, could afford a $650,000 downtown apartment…)
And I don’t understand why the nineteenth-century characters seem to have British, Irish, and Scottish accents, since the two strands take place in the same location. This confusion undercuts the set design (David Evans Morris), which effectively creates a room that seems convincing in both centuries.
There’s one scene, toward the end of the play, where Callum (James Martinez), Susie (Lisa de Mont), and Elizabeth (Ali Marsh), all having recently lost their partners, get wildly drunk together. Here, where all the exposition has already been addressed, and all three are too wasted to be articulate and spin out their thoughts coherently, we see the actors finally get a chance to play breathing characters who don’t think before they speak, and who are confused and inconsistent. We see the performances they might have given, and the play this might have been.