An Intervention, by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"You should have a pint of something deadly - like Absinthe or Meth."
In Mike Bartlett's play "An Intervention" A and B are besties. They are such close friends that they are almost inseperable and while they share their social compulsions they disagree on other things, mostly political. A is staunchly anti-war and pro-drinking while B is just the opposite. B is the truly sober one whose opinions are strongly in favor of intervention in foreign politics. A thinks interventions are strictly personal and should be restricted to the close at home problems of personal abuse. When B gets a new girlfriend, Hannah, A is pissed and the sense of interventions becomes overly direct and ultra-personal and invasive. This close friendship is on the brink of extinction but all things change and ultimately a different sort of intervention comes into view.
Bartlett apparently has not indicated the gender or racial components of A or B in his script and it can be played in many different ways. The original British production at the Watford Palace (outside of London in the Fringe Theater District) in 2014 had Rachael Stirling as A and John Hollingworth as B. Currently the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts has two different companies playing the play and speaking the speeches. I saw the second cast with Betty Gilpin as A and Debargo Sanyal as B (in keeping with the Watford original). Others may see the first cast with Josh Hamilton as A and Justin Long as B. While some dynamics may alter and some perceptions about the actual nature of their friendships may differ, the play remains the play and its outcome won't be changed. At least I hope not.
In one act, about five scenes, a year or so in this friendship goes by. We meet them at the beginning of the end of their friendship and we leave them with a relationship that has some new hope. It should be considered a happy play, therefore, but the reality is that reality for these two people is never easy, rarely happy and much in need of mutual support. One thing to know before you go is that dialect coach Charlotte Fleck has done an incredible job of coaching the actors I saw into nearly unrecognizable British-y accents. Gilpin, in particular in - if I heard her correctly - an Australian accent adapted to some local British dialect is very hard to understand at times. Thankfully we know her mindset on things early on in the play and we can assume her comments based on Sanyal's responses.
Gilpin takes on drunkeness, suicidal tendencies, personal dramatics and some hilarious comic moments with equal amounts of force, fortitude and fecklessness. She brings to A the restless attitudes of an alcoholic and we are never taken away from it even when she goes on the wagon. Her drinking and her great sense of loss has led her as far astray as a person can go and still keep going. Her hatched plot to initimidate B and incriminate him in her criminal act produces one of the most gruesomely funny scenes in any play I've seen. Gilpin manages to carry all of this off with a naturalness that speaks volumes in the schools of acting. If only every word she spoke was as specific as every action she undertook. What a brilliant performance that would have been. As things stand she is merely excellent.
Debargo Sanyal is a remarkable actor able to maintain a stand-off attitude while being visually involved in everything going on around him. He makes being uncomfortable around a close friend into an artform. He creates indifference as an answer to his own anger and uses that handy tool to combat the negativity coming at him. His slender figure is nevertheless rugged and strong and he needs that physical power to complete this play. It is a remarkable achievement to handle the emotional drama and the personal indulgences in conjunction with the demands on his arms and his body and his upperbody strength. It's a wonderful performance and for both Sanyal and Gilpin being Cast Two brings with it no stigma of being the seconds. They are the firsts as far as I am concerned.
Lila Neugebauer has directed this company with an eye to the perfection of relationship relationships. Only on those rare occasions when it is absolutely necessary are these two out of arms reach of one another. Not a sexual friendship, not relying on gender understanding, they are instead friends who should probably never have been friends, but having established that relationship are now locked into one another's lives, attitudes and intentions. Neugebauer makes this very clear in the way they touch one another, look at one another and respond to the other's reactions to things said or things done. It is a very touchy subject here, the physical friendship, and she has given clarity to the uniqueness of what Bartlett has written.
The set by Laura Jellinek is wonderfully wrought, a room that cannot exist and yet you hope that it does, somewhere. Kaye Voyce's costumes seem just right for the characters, inspired by the playwright's words. Ben Stanton's lighting for this play is strong and mood-controlling, beautifully wrought. Brandon Wolcott's sound design is so effective that I forgot when a sound was cued in and kept looking for an intrusive phone at one point.
An Intervention may never become one of your favorite plays, but it is one that you won't easily forget or be able to ignore. It should spark conversation and it will lead you to a drink, but hopefully only one. It caps a season of fascinating new plays at the Williamstown Festival and it does not let you down on the forward thrust to the future of theater.
Debargo Sanyal and Betty Gilpin; photo: Paul Fox
Debargo Sanyal; photo: Paul Fox
Justin Long and Josh Hamilton; photo: T. Charles Erickson
An Intervention plays in repertory with itself (two casts) through August 23 at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line at wtfestival.org.