nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
October 4, 2007
It's the oldest story in the world—boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy loses girl—but it feels new again every time it happens to you. And as an audience member at Kristen Palmer's play Departures, you feel like it's happening to you all over again, because director Kyle Ancowitz's visceral production puts the audience in such intimate contact with the stage that you're (literally) trapped in the bedroom with a couple as they work out their relationship. The production makes physical the play's emotional subtext, its structural metaphors, in rich and powerful ways.
The sense of entrapment, for Andrew and Cara, is mirrored in the setup of the playing space. Set designer Kerry Lee Chipman has dropped a small, hyper-realistic student bedroom (down-at-the-heels armchair; sticker-covered trunk used as a window seat; unmade bed with ivy-patterned sheets; giant stereo speakers; clean and dirty clothes strewn everywhere) in between two high rows of bleachers that form the audience seating. There are also barricades—low walls—at the ends of the alley between the bleachers. (Stairs from outside the playing space lead the audience over these walls to get to the seats.) There's one exit—in the middle of one of the bleacher rows—and the audience forms two of the walls of the bedroom. Fittingly enough, when the two are outside, they deliver monologues at a greater distance from both each other and the audience, atop the low halls at the perimeter of the space. But when they're in that room (the great majority of the play), they're inches away from the first row of audience.
Both Keira Keeley and Travis York give performances of extraordinary focus and intensity, which only ups the tension for us. They're acting under a microscope, and yet they're entirely in their own world even with the "real" world pressing in so closely—in much the way lovers in a disintegrating relationship often are entirely absorbed in their own emotional states, regardless of what else is happening around them. It's a very discomfiting way to watch such an intimate play—even more voyeuristic than eavesdropping on a couple fighting in a restaurant, because these two are hashing things out in the privacy of their own room.
Cara and Andrew have a lot to hash out, and not a lot of time to do it—at the start of the play, they've just fallen into a relationship at their northern England university, partly out of convenience for Cara, who has no place to stay. She's just graduated, her visa is about to expire, and she's returning to America in a matter of months. Though they're trying to spin elaborate stories about how and when they'll meet again—30 years later at a book-signing—the end of their relationship is already looming over them. The bulk of the play takes place on their last day, with Kara trying to organize and say goodbye to the past three years and prepare to return to a life, with no fixed certainties, and Andrew trying desperately to figure out how to prolong the relationship, how to pin down future plans after she gets on that plane.
It's a very simple story—and Palmer is wise enough to keep it that way, to make the story develop through the details we learn about Andrew and Cara, rather than through plot twists or high-stakes events. They're just two pretty messed-up, emotionally fragile people trying to keep all their worst impulses from destroying each other—and not succeeding too terribly well. The play is a series of tiny revelations, little cracks in one or the other's armor hastily papered over or shied away from. We learn as much from watching Keeley and York's faces—or from the set of their shoulders, from the tiniest physical details—as they react to each other's barbs, as we do from what they say.
Having seen this production, it's hard to imagine this play being staged more traditionally; the intimacy is often incredibly uncomfortable, but it adds a level of emotional tension that raised the stakes enormously. It also gives us the chance to truly appreciate the precision of Keeley's, York's, and Ancowitz's craft—the fine strokes of specific detail that make the play really live.