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Robin Leslie Brown, Sean McNall, Dan Daily, Dominic Cuskern,
and Rachel Botchan in I Have Been Here Before
(Photo © Matt Schicker)
According to Albert Einstein, time is relative. As far as I know, the Princeton-campus genius never said anything about the relativity of plays, but they're relative as well -- to the time in which they're written. Take J.B. Priestley's works, three of which picked up on Einstein-influenced attitudes about time being curved -- maybe circular -- rather than linear. Sixty-plus years on, these plummy works feel like parlor games; Priestley's handling of time's plastic qualities registers more as the stuff of a magician's legerdemain than as a purposeful dramatist's concerns.

But Priestley wasn't kidding about the nature of time when he took it on, and it probably helps when watching his dramas on the subject to remember the context in which they were written. Priestley was born in 1894, when both Einstein and Sigmund Freud were shaking up popular notions and when spiritualists were adding to the intellectual din. So, as Priestley wrote, he meant his dealing with time and the psyche to be taken seriously. He was like Arthur Conan Doyle in genuinely believing life's mysteries could be understood if the latest scientific advances -- and that included what might have been thought of as the occult -- were applied to them.

Priestley is sincerely solemn in the matter-of-factly titled I Have Been Here Before, which was written in 1937 and which the Pearl Theatre is giving its first stateside revival since 1938, under Gus Kaikkonen's we-mean-business direction. The playwright is on the level when introducing a mysterious stranger to examine and then solve one of life's mysteries: Dr. Görtler (Dominic Cuskern), a German exile, arrives at the Yorkshire inn run by Sally Pratt (Robin Leslie Brown) and her father, Sam Shipley (Edward Seamon). When he asks if certain other guests have registered, Sally replies that they haven't and insists that they're not expected, but she is in for a surprise. Almost immediately after Doctor Görtler leaves the premises, the married couple he'd described -- Janet Ormund (Rachel Botchan) and her husband, an older man named Walter (Dan Daily) -- appear and begin complaining about disturbing premonitions

Not only do the Ormunds take separate rooms, but Janet quickly finds herself attracted to the only other guest, Oliver Farrant (Sean McNall), a teacher at the school where the Ormunds' son is a student. Dr. Görtler returns and takes the last vacancy; it turns out that he has had a vision of what will occur as a result of the Janet-Oliver affair and has hied himself back to the moor-side inn in order to keep it from developing. Oh, and everyone has the uncomfortable feeling that they've been here before.

Further description of the plot would come under the heading "Spoilers." It's completely safe to say, however, that the melodrama Priestley braids from all these strands is as involving as the best of his other pungent works. And we know this is melodrama if only because, at one point, a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder (courtesy of lighting designer Stephen Petrilli and sound designer Mark Huang) reveal a glowing face at a window. Furthermore, Priestley melodramatically stirs up his already bestirred characters, not the least of whom is Walter Ormund, a mogul whose business successes have done nothing to mitigate his deep-seated pessimism. (The man even keeps a revolver in his fancy automobile.)

Rachel Botchan and Dan Daily
in I Have Been Here Before
(Photo © Matthew Shane Coleman)
The mention of anything "deep-seated" is further testament to Freud's theories having worked their way into Priestley's busy mind. Freud, like Dr. Görtler, was an British resident in 1938. His ideas were furthering understanding of the human mind and, consequently, were disturbing long-held beliefs. A story of passion and suspicion, I Have Been Here Before is additionally intriguing in that it deals with of any number of concerns that came to the fore in the '30s. For instance, Dr. Görtler's interest in what he calls "recurrence and intervention" -- meaning that everything in time occurs simultaneously and is thus alterable -- becomes a convincing explanation for premonitions. We think we know what's going to happen because, taking Einstein's suppositions to a logical conclusion, the future is already happening. By this token, a case could be made that the premonitions plaguing Priestley's characters reflect the premonitions of World War II that the British were experiencing. (By the way, while there's something of both Einstein and Freud in the bearded Dr. Görtler, there's also something in him of Agatha Christie's Belgian-born Hercule Poirot, who was rapidly becoming a '30s icon.)
Bringing Priestley to life under director Kaikonnen's deft hand, the cast does some of the Pearl's best acting. Dan Daily, built on a grand scale and looking like W.C. Fields' handsome younger brother, gives Walter Ormund the feel of a tragic figure. Rachel Botchan's fretful Janet Ormund is exactly right, in particular when she realizes that she's in love with Sean McNall's forthright Oliver Farrant. (To prove the lovers' affinity, costume designer Barbara A. Bell has found them matching spectator shoes.) Dominic Cuskern is a sagacious Dr. Görtler, while Robin Leslie Brown and Edward Seamon make staunch hosts despite their wobbly Yorkshire accents. A special nod to Takeshi Kata, who has placed seven clocks upon her properly stodgy set as a reminder that time surrounds us and -- as Priestley so well demonstrates -- often confounds us.

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