Think of George Love as Mr. Sloane some 25 years later. It wouldn't be too surprising if Joe Orton's malcontentedly sexual schemer, who's currently having a resurgence courtesy of the Roundabout, grew up to be the love-'em-leave-'em-rob-'em-blind central figure of Karoline Leach's play Tryst at the Promenade Theatre.
It wouldn't be much of a shock even if George weren't played by Maxwell Caulfield, who made his mark with a memorable Sloane a quarter-century ago. Caulfield, sporting a meticulously cut midsection that's as physically impressive as it is laughably anachronistic for Tryst's 1910 England setting, is every bit the magnetic master smolderer the part requires. With a turn of his head, an arch of an eyebrow, and the sensuously massaged vocal tones defining a man smitten by beauty, he knows just how to spark, burn, and blaze to melt the resistance - and bank account - of any woman he meets.
We even see, in Caulfield's costar, Amelia Campbell, how the fidgetingly frigid Adelaide Pinchin could fall for his deceptions. An introverted, nervous sewing girl who hasn't known much in the way of kindness from men, Adelaide is so stunned by George's overtures that she can't help but submit. Campbell, locking away any heat Adelaide feels behind an all-but impenetrable wall of self-doubt, is the ideal foil for Caulfield, and their chemistry together is just as frantically fraught as Leach's play demands.
But as good as Leach and her director, Joe Brancato, are at suggesting all these feelings, they're considerably less adept at finding an outlet for them. The slowly simmering Adelaide and full-boiling George never get much chance to realize their physical aspirations: as they're too busy psyche-searching. If the mind can really be someone's sexiest feature, these two should grace the cover of the next Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.
Because they never, ever shut up about what they're thinking or why they're thinking it. And when they're not analyzing themselves (and, as they're British, that's not exactly their wont), they're trying to break through the other's walls and find the real person underneath. You know, the person each has been dying to know, love, and seduce. In fact, Act One is barely half over when Tryst has descended into an all-out psychotherapy session, complete with the attendant symbolism: Will he leave, and what does that mean? Is she trying to make him go, or is she trying to get him to stay?
Of course there's also the de rigueur sprinkling of secrets that tries to push the play into "erotic thriller" territory. But as so many of these secrets involve childhood traumas or personal insecurities, and as most of these exist to establish both as pretenders who can't trust or be trusted, it's as impossible for us to get worked up about them as it is for George and Adelaide to. This might as well be a Very Special Movie on Lifetime: Neither can be happy until they've discovered and revealed everything about themselves.
When that happens, there's only one outcome the submissive Adelaide and the violent George can believably reach; without tension, sexual or otherwise, Tryst is a dour, dull affair. Brancato's staging is generally inert, but might provide appropriate contrast if either character were fueled by an exciting inner life. David Korins's set depicting both the darkly oppressive London streets and the couple's honeymoon hideaway at Weston Super Mare, Alejo Vietti's costumes, and Jeff Nellis's lights contribute admirably to the gloom pervading the proceedings.
If Tryst is never sexy and never surprising, it's also never boring. Caulfield and Campbell see to that, making as much as can be made of characters who've just escaped from a third-year psych major's textbook. When George's shell of illusion is pierced and he stands staring with deer-in-the-headlight eyes, or when Adelaide rambles endlessly about her body-image issues or her poor relationship with her father, the actors easily hold your attention.
That's even excluding, it should be noted, the frequent flashes of skin Brancato has worked into the show (with varying degrees of gratuitousness): You see all of Caulfield's chest and, well, all of Campbell. That alone will probably be enough to sell some audience members on Tryst, but the rest - those who try to follow and care about the story - will likely end up caring as little about concerns of the flesh as George and Adelaide seem to.