Another season, another round of Brit transfers, and the newest Broadway offerings from across the pond will truly test your theater taste buds; this fall has a messy but delectable sticky bun (Brief Encounter) and a minutely satisfying yet rote cucumber sandwich (The Pitmen Painters). Some may crave the tidy, bite-sized appeal of the latter, but it’s the hearty naught of having the former that results in the more edifying choice.
Actually, you can witness both foodstuffs at Brief Encounter (they even feed you the cucumber treats post-curtain call), and nibbles or not, the production more than justifies the gimmicks. Kneehigh Theatre’s acclaimed multimedia version of David Lean’s 1946 heartbreaker has its share of nagging winks to the audience, and perhaps there’s a tangential ditty too many. But director Emma Rice, working with an excellent cast of hardworking troupers, has enveloped the evening with that inimitable let’s-throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks theatricality seemingly deep-rooted in scrappy U.K. upstart theater companies, and occasionally said tactic results in a shrug, but at least it’s always an honest-to-God, fervent embrace of the theatrical for theater’s sake.
And despite the fancy trappings (The Purple Rose of Cairo-style leaps into a black-and-white frame, a traveling orchestra, an onstage rowboat), the bitter realizations of Lean’s film are never sullied, as the central duo’s beleaguered romance is treated as seriously as any of life’s misfortunes, and some of the imagery conjured up by this company to suggest states of mind is staggering. I shant soon forget the thrilling image of a projected train racing through Laura as Alec has departed her presence for the last time—solidifying the character’s state of literally having been run down by love. As the Fabulous Thunderbirds once said, that’s powerful stuff.
Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters is a play for all of those who felt confounded by John Logan’s Red earlier this year. Not that Red left a whole lot to be confounded by, but once you witness firsthand how Hall’s shockingly redundant play (seemingly cribbed quite liberally from his very own Billy Elliot) implodes before your eyes over two-and-a-half hours of miners and tastemakers pontificating on all-caps ART, you are reminded of why Logan’s play only needed one act and two people to make its points. Actually, the ever-resourceful Stephen Sondheim needed only three words: art isn’t easy.
Brief Encounter is now playing at Studio 54 (254 W. 54th St.) in New York City and continues until December 5. Schedule: Tue-Sun, times vary, so please check showtimes. Running time: 1 hour and 35 minutes, no intermission. The Pitmen Painters is now playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 W. 47th St.) in New York City and continues until December 12. Schedule: Tue at 7pm, Wed-Sat at 8pm, Wed, Sat & Sun at 2pm. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, one intermission.