Christian Campbell in Magnetic North
(© Michael Gottlieb)
Christian Campbell in Magnetic North
(© Michael Gottlieb)
In Magnetic North, now at the Workshop Theatre, playwright William Donnelly takes on what might seem a somewhat generic situation -- a marriage on the cusp of collapse -- and makes it fresh and compelling. And with a stripped-down production in a very tiny space, a lot hinges on Donnelly's totally believable dialogue and the work of a four-person cast.

The exposition is skillfully oblique. We first encounter James (Christian Campbell) at a bar, catching up with ex-girlfriend, Mara (Heather Lee Harper). He has since married, and she has not, and it quickly becomes apparent that she's still carrying a torch. Mara is nothing if not direct: "sopping" is how she describes her current condition, after recalling in lubricious detail an erotic encounter from their shared past.

Cut to James' home, where his wife, Leigh (Sarah Shahinian, particularly touching), is confident enough -- or so it seems -- to greet him with a joking "So are you leaving me?" Leigh can only keep up the banter so long before revealing the trauma that keeps her immobilized at home while James is out working and catching up on his social life.

A fourth player rounds out this game of mixed doubles: James' office buddy, Emmet (Scott Richard Foster). He makes no bones about being a male chauvinist; but he has some very valid, comically couched advice to offer. While giving the impression that he's shambling and relaxed, Foster has impeccable timing. And even though Emmet is the odd man out in this quartet, he ultimately proves to be the most sympathetic character.

Donnelly wrings extraordinary suspense out of the will-he or won't-he plot. And in an era of blabbing, boastful mistresses, it's interesting to witness Mara's modus operandi: she'll stop at nothing to convince James that acting on his attraction is the only "true" way to go.