Brenda Blethyn and Niall Buggy
in Haunted
(© Jonathan Keenan)
Brenda Blethyn and Niall Buggy
in Haunted
(© Jonathan Keenan)
A man screams out "Stay!" as two shadowed female figures seem to berate him. This rather corny opening sequence is just one of the problems with Edna O'Brien's Haunted, now receiving its U.S. premiere at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival.

In this dreary play about three unhappy Londoners, an elderly man named Jack Berry (Niall Buggy) befriends a much younger woman, Hazel (Beth Cooke), making presents of his wife's jewelry and clothing in exchange for elocution lessons. Jack gives her the impression that he's a lonely widower. However, his wife Gladys (Brenda Blethyn) is, in fact, very much alive.

This farcical premise does provide a few laughs, but O'Brien's emphasis on a loss that Jack and Hazel suffered in their youth -- which irrevocably damaged their marriage -- results in a work that struggles to balance its light and dark elements. Moreover, the overwritten script gets bogged down by numerous literary references -- to Shakespeare, O'Neill, Albee, and others -- that often seem strained. The play also devolves into melodrama at the end, particularly in regards to Hazel's final fate.

Blethyn, a two-time Academy Award nominee, enlivens the production with a funny yet sensitive portrayal of Gladys, who still seems very much in love with Jack and worried about the growing distance between them. A highlight of the production is an impromptu exercise routine that Gladys initiates to get Jack out of the funk that he seems steeped within. Blethyn fully commits to the action with hilarious results.

Buggy has his moments, but needs to demonstrate more shades in his performance in order to make Jack's actions not only comprehensible, but potentially sympathetic. Cooke has a strong presence, although her characters' motivations are not always clear, with the blame for that probably equally shared by actress, playwright, and the play's director, Braham Murray.