“He” and “She” are a 40ish upper middle class couple who divorced ten years earlier following the traumatic death of their young son who was hit by a car. Due to toxic waste from a nearby gas factory, 200 graves, including their son’s will have to be dug up and the remains reinterred elsewhere. This unpleasant circumstance instigates this reunion after a long estrangement at a cemetery in Holland.
He is a writer who moved to France, remarried and started a new existence. She has never fully recovered from the trauma and has since had a series of jobs and made new friends. They emotionally pore over and recount their lives before, during and after the catastrophe.
Ms. Vekemans’ dialogue has a precise, literary quality and though her plot and characters are familiar, she has crafted a compelling drama. Sober and sensitive, it’s decidedly not an entertainment. An odd and perhaps significant detail is that though the parents are not named, the son is.
Vekemans was born in 1965, and since 1995 she has written several plays that were produced in Holland and internationally. Poison was first performed in 2010, and was hailed in Holland and around the world. This New York City premiere is translated into English by Rina Vergano.
When the audience enters, He is onstage walking and looking around. Jian Jung’s arresting scenic design has the stage with black walls, a white floor, a white bench and a small white wall that frames a soft drink vending machine. It’s a stimulating cavern of abstraction. Ms. Jung’s basic costume design artfully and clearly depicts He and She’s backgrounds.
From up above in the rear of the theater, the black clad, bearded young Jordan Rutter expressively sings in German. Later, he is downstairs and sings as he walks up the aisle on to the stage for dramatic and possibly symbolic effect.
It’s all part of director Erwin Maas’s masterful and inventive staging of this potentially static two-character work. Mr. Maas has done as much as possible to energize this by it’s nature talky piece with theatrical flair.
As She, the alluring Birgit Huppuch is simultaneously fierce and vulnerable. Ms. Huppuch’s smoothly expressive voice and luminous presence conveys the numbing anguish and strong spirit of the character. It’s a haunting performance.
Wearing an academic style blazer and slacks, the low-key Michael Laurence is quite charming and effective as He. Mr. Laurence offers a crisp portrait of a man who has been shattered and who put himself back together by controlling his feelings. Laurence and Huppuch have great chemistry together and beautifully perform this intense and difficult material.
Lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew has been provided with a grand canvass to display her talents. There are numerous fluctuations of brightness, dimness and darkness that enhance the narrative. The often subtle but forceful sound design by Sam LaFrage is also a key component of the abstract landscape on view.
Poison is a challenging and insightful exploration of the human condition that has been perfectly rendered.
Poison (through December 11, 2016)
The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-447-7400 or visit http://www.origintheatre.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission