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Brilliant Traces

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 17, 2018

Blake Merriman and Alyssa May Gold
Photo by Grace Merriman

Throughout the 1980s there was a slew of plays that can be best described as unlovable-losers dramas. These two-handers revolve around a couple (usually a man and a woman), who after a night of soul-bearing and secret-sharing let down their guard and prove to be lovable after all. Some of the most successful of these include Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly, John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, and Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clare de Lune. (In 1995 James Edwin Parker's Two Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter's Night queered the equation.) Brilliant Traces, Cindy Lou Johnson's play from 1989 and which is currently being revived at the WorkShop Theater, is a lesser known work but reflects all of the hallmarks of the genre.

Brilliant Traces begins with a bang—literally. Runaway bride Rosanna DeLuce (Alyssa May Gold) is pounding on the cabin door belonging to Henry Harry (Blake Merriman), a social exile living somewhere in the Alaskan hinterland. Rosanna, still wearing her full bridal gown, veil, and satin slippers, barges in on Henry, who is enveloped in blankets and resembles a hibernating bear. She is a one-woman rampage, and in her opening monologue she is as blustery as the howling blizzard conditions outside. Overcome with exhaustion and the effects of quickly-downed whiskey, she finally passes out, and Henry calmly and gently undresses her and puts her to bed.

When Rosanna wakes up (two days later), the two spar, commiserate, and finally reveal the extent of their pain that, as Rosanna explains, goes as deep as her DNA. For reasons that will not be divulged here, each is carrying the psychological scars of tragedy and sadness. The palpable, brilliant traces of these traumas have made them both flee as far as possible to avoid all future human intimacies. With dangerous whiteout conditions surrounding them and with no place to hide from each other in the one-room cabin (nicely designed by Matthew S. Crane and atmospherically lit by Paul T. Kennedy), the two will inevitably find solace, and perhaps salvation, in the comforting presence of another person.

The play is most effective when it allows the characters to interact honestly and without literary pretenses. The setup is intriguing, and the ideas are worthy. Unfortunately, there are a few too many writerly excesses that undermine character development and narrative believability. For instance, there is a recurring reference to Rosanna's satin shoes that Henry burned in the broiler in an attempt to dry them. The mention of "cooking" her shoes, therefore, becomes a frequent (and increasingly unfunny) punchline, and then the shoes take on unwieldy and overly weighty symbolism. There are also moments in which the dialogue is a little too overwrought and overwritten. Lyrical allusions to out-of-body experiences, extraterrestrials, and heartbeats (which at one point is accompanied by a regrettable lighting effect) are at odds with the plain spoken characters.

As the snowbound couple, Gold and Merriman do as well as they can with the material. In the original production directed by Terry Kinney the parts were performed by Joan Cusack and Kevin Anderson, who were quite memorable. I saw that production, and I remember that Cusack in particular was a force of nature. She beautifully captured the zaniness, sexiness, and heartbreak of the character. To get a sense of the way she simultaneously encapsulated the absurdity, anger, and sadness of the human condition in Brilliant Traces one need only look at the scene from the film In and Out in which her jilted character screams at the cosmos, "Is everybody gay?"

Directed by Joshua Warr, Gold plays the character as much more grounded than her predecessor, and it works. She arms herself with steely toughness, but her vulnerability and self-proclaimed weakness emerge believably as she faces the overwhelming feelings of existential loneliness. In the far less showy role Merriman is a good foil for his uninvited houseguest. As the play progresses, he gradually sheds his aloofness, and we see the broken shell of a man underneath. His Henry is instinctually and preternaturally nurturing, and in his portrayal there are glimmers of hope even as the character tries to suppress them.

Brilliant Traces reminds us that in our darkest times and in the remotest of places, human compassion and empathy can suddenly appear. In fact another unlovable loser might be right outside the door.

Brilliant Traces
Through March 4
WorkShop Theater, 312 West 36th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: