Monday, June 19, 2017

"Brits Off Broadway" Theater Review—“Invincible” by Torben Betts

Written by Torben Betts; directed by Stephen Darcy
Performances through July 2, 2017
Brits Off Broadway, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

The cast of Invincible (photo: Manuel Harlan)
Torben Betts has been called the new Alan Ayckbourn. Too bad, then, that Betts’s play Invincible is messy, heavy-handed and pandering, turning everything that Ayckbourn does so effortlessly in his class-conscious plays into fodder for cheap, easy laughs.

In a northern England neighborhood, Emily and Oliver—a newly downsized couple from London—preps for a visit from Alan and Dawn, the husband and wife next door. Although Betts gives his foursome separate identities, he never allows these men and women to become both comprehensible and humane. And right from the beginning, Betts stacks the dramatic and comedic deck.

Emily and Oliver open the play discussing Oliver’s dying mum, an apparently horrible (and politically conservative) woman who so offends the socialist sensibilities of her daughter-in-law that she refuses to even consider marrying Oliver to appease his mother before she dies. Emily immediately becomes one of the most unlikable stage characters I’ve yet encountered, and Betts doesn’t stop there. After Dawn and Alan—both working-class caricatures—arrive, Emily mocks Alan’s lack of talent when he shows his paintings of his beloved cat Vince (named after the ship HMS Invincible, and giving the play its title), then gives a shallow defense of socialism and critique of capitalism so that even the most liberal audience member will find her irritating.

Emily’s tone-deafness is one of a series that Betts takes to extremes. Emily and Oliver discuss 16th century British composers Byrd and Tallis with authority and have an oversized, coffee-table volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Alan is so dense that he sees that book and thinks the writer was one of the Marx Brothers, leading to a painfully unfunny interlude where he impersonates his favorite comedy team, Laurel and Hardy. Alan is also a huge fan of football while Dawn and Oliver commiserate over how much they hate it. (Cricket was Oliver’s college sport.) The two women even look blatantly opposite: bespectacled Emily has her hair in a bun and wears no makeup; Dawn improbably wears a tiny dress to show off her bosom and legs, then becomes embarrassed when she’s being leered at.

What in Ayckbourn are endearing eccentrics are in Betts’s hands easily manipulated chess pieces: this is most evident in act two, when both couples deal with tragedies involving their sons, an adulterous interlude rears its head and Alan’s beloved cat disappears.

Director Stephen Darcy makes it all go by in a whirlwind, and his expert cast—Elizabeth Boag (Dawn), Emily Bowker (Emily), Graeme Brookes (Alan) and Alastair Whatley (Oliver)—both gets laughs and finds the poignance missing from Betts’s script. Boag, a veteran of previous Ayckbourn plays at Brits Off Broadway, does so much with a mere raised eyebrow or a simple shrug that she makes Dawn sympathetic rather than silly, nearly making Invincible a must-see despite the writing’s deficiencies.

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