If you’re chomping at the bit to see two Edwardian neurotics face off — and who isn’t? — you’re encouraged to head towards The Irish Repertory Theatre, where Karoline Leach’s Tryst is having a chilling revival.
The two-act two-hander, directed by Joe Brancato with no breathing-space provided, explains what happens when seemingly Bluebeard/Jack the Ripper-inspired George Smith (Mark Shanahan), claiming to be George Love, makes the mistake of zeroing in on unmarried hat-maker Adelaide Pinchin (Andrea Maulella) as the target of his next episode of doing a vulnerable lady out of whatever money she’s put by and then lamming it.
All seems to be going right for Smith/Love and wrong for Pinchin right up to the moment they wed — after a two-day ersatz London romance — and trundle into the dowdy Weston-Super-Mare hotel room designer Michael Schweikardt has tucked into his clever set. That’s when George’s plan stops going as outlined — and starts going differently for Adelaide than she had hoped — and becomes a war of conflicting battered psyches.
“Whose game is this?” George finally asks when out pour tales of parental abuse — Adelaide’s at the hands of her oppressive father, George’s at the loss of his precious mother. The upper hand in the tussle keeps shifting from him to her and back again and then back again.
One requirement of melodrama — and make no mistake that Tryst isn’t melodrama — is that actors throw themselves wholeheartedly into the work, both body and speech. Looking frail in Alejo Vietti’s staid outfits (including a brown hat the reticent milliner claims as her handiwork) as the self-hating Adelaide, Mauella is regularly prone to smiting herself on the head, smacking herself on the face, or strenuously rubbing her palms up and down her thighs. She’s a woman who’s taken to punishing herself before her father has to.
Adelaide is also woman as worm — until, that is, the worm turns, as she understands the hoax to which she’s succumbed and finds the pride she’s told by George she should muster.
Shanahan plays his part as a rat whose natural habitat is the gutter. Grimy at the outset, when he confronts the audience in open, collarless shirt and trousers, he plays up the man’s deep-seated misanthropy. After George has identified his new prey, Shanahan returns in a striped three-piece suit and spouting an upper-class accent to match — an accent, incidentally, George sometimes forgets he’s using to impress Adelaide. (Why she never notices the lapse is something Brancato and dialect coach Stephen Gabis will have to explain.)
Displaying how impenetrably malevolent George is when he begins to put his plot in motion, Shanahan is skilled at allowing the bloke’s certainty to crumble by small measures until — the glints in Shanahan’s eyes dimming — he shows a George unmanned by what’s transpired between the increasingly bold Adelaide and himself. It’s quite a performance.