First things first: The title of The Wooden Breeks, Glen Berger's new play at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, refers to a coffin. Worried? If that doesn't scare you away, nothing will: This isn't another theatrical fright-fest, but one of those plays that presents itself as grim while thinking it's really about the eternally knowing heart beneath its seamy exterior.
Yes and no. The play's inspiring message about learning from tragedy and making the decision to move on from it is always on display. But it's so frequently obscured by the play's inordinately dark shell that even when that message is at the forefront, you feel as though you've been dropped into the waiting room of a stately funeral parlor in Victorian Scotland.
At least that's where the play is set. But if that doesn't strike you as an inviting way to spend an afternoon or evening, that's exactly the problem. Neither Berger nor director Trip Cullman has succeeded at balancing the pervasive gloom of the first half of the story with the increasingly playful turns of the second. If something isn't part of the exposition (which requires most of Act One), it's part of the drawn-out denouement (which consumes Act Two).
While The Wooden Breeks is overlong at nearly two and a half hours, there are occasional glimpses of a solid 90-minute play here. Presenting a story-in-a-story, with tinker Tom Bosch (Adam Rothenberg) regaling a young boy named Wicker Grigs (Jaymie Dornan), with the sordid, secret (and entirely fabricated) history of Wicker's long-departed mother (and Bosch's one-time lover) Hetty, Berger is fairly successful at examining loss through a jaggedly cracked lens.
In Bosch's latest tale, the focus is not on Hetty but on the despondent inhabitants of the decript village of Brood: The lighthouse keeper, Jarl von Hoother (T. Ryder Smith), who's never stepped outside, but devours the science books delivered to his door; young couple Tricity and Armitage (Louis Cancelmi and Maria Dizzia), who won't marry for fear of ruining their love; the mourning Fanny Nelles (Veanne Cox), recovering from the long-ago death of her daughter and refusing to acknowledge the man who's long harbored a secret desire for her, vicar Enry Leap (Steve Mellor).
Their doldrums are interrupted by Anna Livia Spoon (Ana Reeder), who's come to hawk bell devices that allow those buried alive to be rescued before suffocation. Her presence brings with it a tornado of devastating fresh air that upturns all the relationships in the village, at least until she keels over herself. And did I mention she looks exactly like Hetty Grigs?
Sometimes Berger's inclination toward obviousness works in his favor. He nicely delineates his characters beyond their basic plot functions as representations of Bosch's inner turmoil and methods of distracting himself and Wicker from their emptiness, and cleverly establishes the many threads of plot that will be woven, undone, tangled, and cut before things are through. But Berger also has a tendency to go too far: He embraces Outer Limits logic to trap Bosch and Wicker in the story until they overcome their grief, and resolves the individual stories in an impossibly tidy way a minute before the show ends.
Otherwise, in look and feel, The Wooden Breeks recalls The Pillowman, the wicked horror-comedy that Martin McDonagh unleashed on Broadway last season. But that was an intensely detailed and layered experience, in which the writing and production fed and fed off of each other; Berger and Cullman, who's staged the piece with a stiff and stodgy hand, haven't achieved the same electrifying synthesis.
Berger's disjointedly whimsical writing seems inseparable from Paul Whitaker's ethereal lighting and Fitz Patton's eerily knowing sound design, true, and a number of effects (especially equating Bosch's fire with the lamp of a lighthouse) do impress. But the style of all this is at odds with Anita Yavich's horror-movie costumes, and Beowulf Boritt's generically oppressive set, which could as easily function for a low-budget, high-concept Death of a Salesman as for Berger's Death of a Saleswoman.
The performances are equally erratic, with Rothenberg giving a miscellaneous Irish/Scottish portrayal, Cox utilizing her usual uptight-detached shtick (though she does it very well), Dornan shrieking his way (if at different volumes) through his role, and Smith convincing all too well as the American nerd (Bosch's boring alter-ego) trapped in the center of it all. At least Reeder brings a mysterious flair to her roles that helps you understand why both women are so important to so many people.
Mellor brings distinction to his one-note character only in a first-act confrontation with a marauding gravedigger (Ron Cephas Jones) about the graveyard he's been robbing: "It's the meeting place of Past and Present - a landscape called Memory," he says. "Without Memory, we're half-wits, and with it...we're connected to our own lives, and the lives of all who have lived."
But memory, Berger argues, is as likely to isolate as connect. The trick, the play tells us, is learning which memories to keep and which to reject so that life may be as rich as possible. Berger and Cullman might find that an editing process as selective applied to the play as a whole might make this message and others lurking in the shadows more easily face the light of day.
The Wooden Breeks