The course of true love never runs smooth, but the course of false love generally follows an even rockier path. Which was the case for landmark 20th century writers Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren? In the wake of Fabrice Rozié's new show at the Clurman Theatre about them, Transatlantic Liaison, a better question might be, "Who cares?"
That's not to say there's no attempt here at engendering feeling. Rozié and director John McLean have imbued Transatlantic Liaison with a number of elements that all but grab your shoulders and scream romance in your ear: A wistful set by David Lovett depicting a bedroom and café; lights (also by Lovett) that ensconce the stage in the glow of a waking dream; even a cellist (Camilla Boatright) playing hypnotically heartfelt original music (by Areski Belkacem). These elements so contribute to a heady, perfume-scented atmosphere that it's often easy to forget how little actually happens onstage.
Oh, the show - it's barely a play - attempts to chart the rocky and ultimately unfulfilled romance of the French de Beauvoir (1908-1986) and the American Algren (1909-1981), using text based heavily (if not exclusively) on de Beauvoir's books Letters á Nelson Algren and Les Mandarins. There's a fair amount of passion there, and Rozié successfully translates much of it into the monologues that constitute most of the show, elucidating the many hopeful and painful ways absence makes the heart grow fonder. But she can't generate much real dramatic tension when de Beauvoir (Elizabeth Rothan) and Algren (Matthew S. Tompkins) can seldom be in the same room, let alone communicate directly.
It's the major problem with long-distance relationships, and thus the major stumbling block for a show about nothing else. What does come across is that the two writers are living so much within their words that their increasingly epistolary enchantment is slowly making them less capable of communicating in person. That's an interesting idea deserving of further exploration and development, but the scenes in which the two do meet - a couple of times in a bedroom, by a lake when they finally part ways - don't do the trick: The torrid, florid interactions they share make them seem more like greeting cards than actual people.
The performers try, though: Rothan projects an alluring combination of sex and champagne, her cool demeanor occasionally giving way to brief bursts of heat that give us a real idea of how she might behave in her most intimate moments. Tompkins is as American as Rothan is continental, and while he contrasts superbly with her, his feels like more of a stock portrayal than a spiritual reimagining. If there's no believable hint in her of the feminist streak that would lead to writing The Second Sex or in him of the perceptive author of The Man With the Golden Arm, the actors have real chemistry together that heats up the few times they're allowed to truly share the stage.
But it's not enough to bring you into their world and help you understand the mysterious ways that trying to carry out a love affair can bring about its dissolution; the long-distance dramaturgy sees to that. There may be times you find yourself longing to be brought into their concerns, which Rothan and Tompkins make seem important to them. But you're generally kept at such a remove, you and they might as well be on opposite sides of the ocean.