The first thing you hear is the slow ticking of a clock; the first thing you see is a woman attempting to discern the perfect placement of a vase of flowers. It's enough to make your mind reel: Can such a mundane event truly be important enough to be instantly identified with the vital human concept of passing time? What if, however, there are no mundane events?
J.B. Priestley asks this question time and time again in his play I Have Been Here Before, which is receiving its first New York revival (it opened on Broadway in 1938) from the Pearl Theatre Company. Even though the play's subject matter might now seem old hat to audiences familiar with its conceits from science-fiction literature or television shows like The Twilight Zone, the play retains its unique power and intrigue from its dedication to exploring the human condition rather than the specific technical mechanics of its plot.
That plot begins for most of the play's six characters with an imposing sense of déjŕ vu; almost everyone believes that he or she has entered the Black Bull Inn in Yorkshire, or met one or another of the inn's guests, before the current Whitsuntide (Pentecost) weekend in 1937. But the people at the Inn - including its proprietors Sally Pratt (Robin Leslie Brown) and her father Sam Shipley (Edward Seamon), and guests schoolmaster Oliver Farrant (Sean McNall) and business couple Janet and Walter Ormund (Rachel Botchan and Dan Daily) - find these feelings of familiarity hard to ignore, given the presence of a German exile, Dr. Görtler (Dominic Cuskern).
He knows much about everyone - he first arrives at the Inn looking for them, then departs under the mysterious assumption he's chosen the wrong year. He even knows things they do not, specifically that their personal pasts, presents, and futures are all inextricably intertwined. When a budding relationship between Janet and Oliver threatens to rip apart the thin threads holding them all together, everyone comes to believe that Görtler is their only hope, assuming they can trust his (possibly drug-produced) rantings about where they're all headed.
While Priestley does divulge that destination before the play ends, he's more interested in detailing the journey, with all the distrust, curiosity, allegations, and eventual acceptance along the way. This does have a few notable payoffs, particularly at the end of the second act, which is the kind of cliffhanger that leaves audiences chattering excitedly through intermission. Still other moments can too easily feel like padding, brief diversions for the characters and audience while the next plot-changing events are being set up behind the scenes.
Even so, the way that Priestley methodically doles out mysteries, resolutions, and revelations at perfectly chosen intervals keeps you involved throughout. Director Gus Kaikkonen facilitates this by keeping the energy up and the pacing brisk; even when the play slows down to accommodate some clunky exposition or elucidate Görtler's theories about how humans move through time, there's never a drop in energy. The play's three acts, despite clocking in at two hours and forty minutes, breeze by.
Fine acting helps a great deal - Brown, Cuskern, and Botchan are particular standouts in their juicier, more colorful roles, though there's enough for everyone to sink their teeth into, almost always to good effect. (Dialect coach Amy Stoller and costume designer Barbara A. Bell have done well in helping the cast round out their characterizations.) Takeshi Kata's homey sitting-room set, laced with clocks and English countryside charm, and Stephen Petrilli's lights complete the picture.
In the end, though, it's the adventuresome script that proves most captivating. Even if you don't accept Priestley's "circles of time" concept of human existence (it's complex, but bears some similarity to the central conceit of the 1993 film Groundhog Day), it never feels like an extraneous plot element included solely for its mystical qualities. It's solidly integrated into the plot, something the characters must accept or reject on their own terms. As such, don't focus too much on exactly how it works.
Consider instead, if you like, the symbolism you might find: Is the play really about our unwillingness to accept responsibility for our actions, or is it a warning about the encroaching horrors of World War II? Or, you could enjoy it for the complexly woven character study it is. Or, better yet, you could simply marvel at I Have Been Here Before for the many delightful, surprising ways in which it demonstrates that it was truly ahead of its time.
The Pearl Theatre Company