Something is rotten in the state of Sweden in Bryony Lavery's two-hander about a dysfunctional relationship.
Choosing a partner for a long-term relationship is not about discovering "The One," that magical unicorn of a person who fulfills all your hopes and dreams. It's about finding a person whose neuroses don't clash too severely with your own. That's one of the lessons of Bryony Lavery's Stockholm, now making it's New York City debut at 59E59 Theaters in a production by One Year Lease Theater Company. The UK-based Lavery (2004's Frozen) has a clever handle on language and interpersonal relationships, but too much of the story gets lost in translation in this partially Americanized mounting.
Stockholm is about Swedophile couple Todd (Richard Saudek) and Kali (Christina Bennett Lind). They're not actually Swedish, but they love to chase each other around affecting a "Swedish chef" accent as a form of sexual foreplay. They live in a house that looks like the set of a perfume commercial directed by Dr. Seuss (scenic design by James Dardenne). Its dangerously jagged walls and crooked windows are witness to the at-first-subtle, then increasingly violent dysfunction of Todd and Kali's relationship. They revel in their mutual love for Ingmar Bergman and gourmet food. Being the modern, urbane couple that they are, Todd does most of the cooking, leaving Kali plenty of time to stew in her insecurities. Kali is extremely jealous of Todd's past lovers and wary about the emergence of future ones. She pours over his text messages, leading to a knock-down, drag-out fight that threatens to derail their planned holiday to Stockholm. If only Kali had allowed Todd to run to the supermarket for more fennel, maybe none of this would have happened.
Todd and Kali come off less like a heterosexual couple and more like an extra-intense version of Will and Grace. When a man, mid-fellatio, turns his attention to the wallpaper and tile work in his eclectically designed apartment, there's something seriously wrong. Considering Kali's penchant for delusion alloyed with paranoia, this leaves us waiting for an obvious shoe to drop that never does. I wondered if Todd's fey turns of phrase like, "There was a plentiful amount of really rather splendid sex" would hold more truth in the mouth of a British actor.
Words like "mobile" (cell phone), "row" (fight), and "mummy" (mother), fall awkwardly off the tongues of the two American-accented protagonists. If this production of Stockholm is about an apparently American couple, why are they using British colloquialisms? Are these three words so essential to Lavery's text to render them unalterable, or are Todd and Kali just that insufferably snobbish?
Choreographer Natalie Lomonte runs with the latter option, impressively staging what can only be described as a yuppie foodie dream ballet. Dijon mustard and carefully wrapped fish fly with equal dexterity from Kali's hand to Todd's as they unpack their organic shopping haul. These moments are beautiful, gripping, and unfortunately too rare. More often, the actors clumsily mug for the audience, grasping for some direction in a mostly rudderless play.
Big exciting ideas about the nature of long-term relationships begin to emerge in the final 10 minutes. "There is simply no way of telling anyone outside of this how attractive it is," Todd tells us after their violent quarrel and right before a moment of elegantly choreographed makeup sex. Unfortunately, it's too little, too late. We've already sat through an hour of grating manufactured drama between two not-particularly-likable characters.
Near the very end, the two actors look out at the audience like Brechtian soothsayers and narrate a tale about Todd and Kali's future children, providing the only moment of genuine horror in this 70-minute affair: No matter what your feelings are on the play, we can all agree that these two people should definitely not reproduce.