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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 13, 2017

Emily Bowker and Alastair Whatley
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Invincible, Torben Betts's darkly comic play about the class divide in Britain, places its audience in the company of two very annoying couples, neither of whom we would probably want to spend much time socializing with. But the play, opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival, does a fine job of shedding light on how difficult it is for members of the middle class and the working class to find common ground.

The first pair we meet are relocated Londoners Emily (Emily Bowker) and Oliver (Alastair Whatley), who are attempting to adjust to their new lives in a rented home in a blue-collar community in the north of England. They have been hit by the recession's financial woes and have moved to more affordable digs with their two young children. There are a number of clues to give us a sense of the lifestyle they have carted with them: abstract paintings on the walls, Renaissance music playing on the stereo, and a copy of Karl Marx's "Das Kapital" on the coffee table. Next to the book is a baby monitor that the uptight Emily listens to intently, jumping at every sound she imagines she hears coming from the nursery.

Their opposites in almost every way are their new neighbors, Dawn (Elizabeth Boag) and Alan (Graeme Brookes), whom Oliver, trying to make the best of things, has invited over for a friendly get together. On sight, these two epitomize every stereotype folks like and Emily and Oliver would apply to the working classes. Dawn, dressed in red with her ample breasts on display, behaves like an overly friendly barmaid, while Alan (who shows up late because he is watching a sporting match on television), is effusively loud and vulgar. Alan's prominent feature is his exquisite beer belly, which commands such a lively presence, it might just well be a fifth character.

The culture clash is instantaneous, and it does seem that no one can say a word that doesn't offend someone else. The first half of Invincible is played strictly for its exaggerated situation and outsize laughs; at one point, the theme music from the slapstick and burlesque British tv comedy "Benny Hill" is inserted unironically into the mix. Yet underneath it all, there is a surprising amount of serious business going on. The truth is, the theater audience is far more likely to identify with Emily and Oliver than with Dawn and Alan, so that when the former show themselves to be smug and judgmental (Emily) and passive-aggressive and hypocritical (Oliver), we should all start to squirm a little.

The tone completes its shift in the second half of the play, as all of the characters begin to reveal greater depths: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Much, for example, is made of Alan's love for his cat and the pride he takes in his unschooled paintings of the animal. It comes as quite a blow when Emily, the creator of the abstract art on the walls, offers her unfettered critique of Alan's work, shutting down Alan's ebullience about his one great source of pride. We also learn more about troubles in both marriages, and even the source of Emily's self-protective condescension.

If there is one problem with the play, it is the abruptness of the transition from the silliness of Act I to the more complex character development that takes place in the second half. But the four cast members, especially Graeme Brookes as the irritating yet surprisingly sympathetic Alan, are pitch perfect under Stephen Darcy's direction. Even as we laugh and squirm, we can see that there is an underlying humanity that ought to place everyone on common footing. But, alas, the class divide is simply too wide to traverse.

Through July 2
59E59 Theaters, Theater A, 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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