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Alone in Triptych

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Vera Beren, Michael Tomlinson, and Catherine Porter.
Photo by Stefan Hagen.
Sartre may have been right when he famously declared that hell is "other people," but, frankly, most of us seem to be perfectly capable of creating our own hell without anyone else's assistance. Therein lies the agonizing truth at the damaged heart of Alone In Triptych, Renee Philippi's new play, a production of Concrete Temple Theatre having its world premiere at HERE.

As the title suggests, the short (70-minutes) excursion into the abyss, involves three characters—each separate from the others, but all of them enduring nightmarish existences based on situations where you just want to shout out to them to just stop and walk away. And yes, I understand there are often deep-seated psychological issues that draw us to harm like moths to a flame; that's what keeps Dr. Phil in business, after all. But stillÂ…

The playwright has created a series of scenes that switch among the three protagonists. Though they never meet, and, indeed, are located in different parts of the world, they cross one another's path both metaphorically and physically, thanks to the use of Carlo Adinolfi's set design that incorporates sliding screens to mark the transitions.

In each instance, we see them interact with others who are not visible to us but who seem just as real as those who are.

In New Jersey, we encounter Leeann (Vera Beren), a woman who has fallen into the same trap that has ensnared her mother, her grandmothers, and her great-grandmothers: hooking up with the wrong man. In this case, the man is Sean, a middle-aged rocker, clearly self-absorbed and thoroughly unreliable, with whom she has been in a long-term relationship.

The pattern of inevitability emerges as Leeann sorts through a packet of photographs. Here's a picture of Great Grandma Fazzoli, whose husband regularly patted the legs of girls on the trolley. Oh, and here's Great Grandma Lee, whose husband left her for a teenage girl he had gotten pregnant. And here's Mom, "before all that crap happened" with Dad. Still, Leeann has convinced herself that she is the one who will break the mold.

And then the police show up.

The second panel of the triptych takes us to a U. S. Army base in Bavaria, where we find Lori (Catherine Porter) rehearsing "jokes" to tell her abusive and deeply disturbed husband, Mike. These jokes, which are terribly demeaning to women, are the only thing she can think of to keep Mike entertained enough to stave off his hitting her—or doing worse. And so, another character descends along the dark downward path.

As troubling as these situations are, it is the third panel of the triptych that is the most gut-wrenching of all. At least Leeann and Lori retain the potential for salvation. But there is no such possibility for Remi (Michael Tomlinson), irreparably damaged after being sexually abused as a boy. When we meet up with him in a forest in Lancashire, England, any glimmer of hope has completely dried up. He has kidnapped a 12-year-old girl and plans to keep her in isolation where he has convinced himself she will be protected in a way that he was not.

You can, of course, see Remi's deranged logic, just as you can see the way that Leeann and Lori have rationalized every aspect of their lives. As Lori puts it so succinctly: "you can pretend almost anything."

For the two women, a sort of redemption ultimately ensues. Leeann's parallels the path of the "battered person syndrome," and Lori's is indebted to the fact that her husband is even more screwed up than she. For Remi, however, the verdict is final and sealed.

What gives Alone In Triptych its power comes not from the underlying sad, sad tales it relates. Rather, it is the gradual building up of details, offered in a calm, even manner (the playwright has co-directed with Eric Nightengale), so that it is a sense of growing anxiety rather than quick-fire explosive moments that feeds the narrative and charges the atmosphere. Even Remi seems a gentle sort, and you long for some last-minute intervention that will rescue his victim and get him into long-term psychiatric care.

It actually does help that none of the characters breaks the fourth wall in order to speak directly to the audience, so that we are given the opportunity to observe through a one-way mirror. Anything else would be simply too much to take.

In addition to the smart writing and fine direction, and despite the play's painful subject matter, it is the excellent acting that makes Alone In Triptych a rewarding theatrical experience. All three of the performances are first-rate, and together provide us with the thematic variations that underscore the meaning of the play's title.

Alone in Triptych
Through March 30
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, one block below Spring Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: