While it’s meant to be helpful, a glossary of local jargon (Operation Crucible is set in Sheffield, England) in the program is usually a surefire sign that you’re going to have difficulty following the play. Adding to the confusion is that the often dimly lit play leaves us in the dark, in both senses of the phrase. Given the circumstances of the plot, it’s understandable that both director Bryony Shanahan and lighting designer Seth Rook Williams wanted to have many of the rapid-fire scenes unfold in utter pitch black. But it doesn’t abet in our comprehending what’s happening to Bob, Tommy, Phil, and Arthur (the last character is misrepresented as Andrew, in the program) most of the time.
Though they repeatedly mimic their work in a steel mill (saying, “Brush, Brush” and “Bang, Bang”), we’re never really sure where they are–whether they’re trapped in the bottom of the rubble, or at the mill, or cheering at a football game, or released from the rubble and home with their families–nor when the words they relate are taking place: is it before the explosion that reduces the hotel to a solid heap of concrete, glass, and metal, or is it during, or is it after?
And why, for that matter are there three different explosions, each successfully louder than the one before? (The very effective sound effects are by Daniel Foxsmith.) Are they all the same one, reenacted again and again? Or are they different ones, including one or two at the steel mill, where, we’re told, “Accidents happened quite regular”? The overlapping speaking makes the four actors, at times, seem to be talking as one. But it’s also terribly disorienting.
On the plus side are the actors, three of whom–with their authentic, thick accents–were in the original London production of Operation Crucible several years ago. Indeed, the actors are consistently better than the material or the dialogue, which keeps lurching forward and backward and every which way, without telling a comprehensible story.
Playwright Knowles also plays Tommy, who recalls being introduced to the mill by his father who worked there. “Massive hands like saucepans,” says Tommy, about his father. “Soft though, not like mine.” Knowles is by far the largest of the lads, in contrast with Bob (Salvatore D’Aquilla), the frailest, who recreates, in one scene, working at the mill with women, as portrayed by the other three actors.
James Wallwork is especially fetching as Arthur, and the newcomer to this American version of the play is a commanding Christopher McCurry as Phil.
With Bob clad in overalls and the other three wearing vests, Sophia Simensky’s costume designs are more efficient than her stark scenery: a dangling light bulb and hanging plastic strips on a platform with a concrete bench.
Operation Crucible (through June 3, 2018)
Brits Off Broadway Festival 2018
McGill Productions Ltd., From Group Up Theatre, and the Hartshorn-Hook Foundation
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission