When do characters earn our attention, not to mention our affections? The question looms dangerously large over “Alice Trilogy,” the new Tom Murphy play at the Royal Court. Seventy this year, the Irish scribe has never been shy about pouring forth words. But usually they have landed with greater impact than is the case here, and Ian Rickson’s uncharacteristically arid production makes scant argument for the eponymous Alice’s overwhelming solipsism.
Title notwithstanding, Murphy’s play is of conventional length, its three parts broken up by an intermission that gives a hard-working Juliet Stevenson a chance to catch her breath. The first section, “In the Apiary,” in truth would seem from Jeremy Herbert’s design to occupy a claustrophobic attic space murkily lit by Nigel Edwards. It’s the 1980s, and a 25-year-old Irish wife and mother of three is trying desperately to convince herself she is “of sound mind,” pausing to ponder in the meantime who wrote, yes, “Hamlet.”
Her partner in the opening duologue, Al (Derbhle Crotty), listens as Alice enumerates the various reasons for her boredom, most of which revolve around her husband, a banker named Bill whom we meet later on. “This is slow death,” Alice decides of a life that is driving her mad. And why shouldn’t Al second the motion, since she is that old authorial crutch, the alter ego?
The second scene, “By the Gasworks Wall,” isn’t much cheerier to look at. But the promise of some animation comes with the arrival of Alice’s ex-lover Jimmy, played by Stanley Townsend, whose gregariousness and empathy have enlivened numerous productions from the Court’s “Shining City” to Richard Eyre’s revival of “Guys and Dolls.”
Sadly, any shift in affect soon falls away. “I don’t quite believe this yet!” says Alice, breathless from the emotional force of an encounter that seems in every way contrived. “I’m talking too much,” says Alice, but the topics have scarcely budged: her children, her spouse, her capacity for madness. “I wonder if, after all, sanity isn’t just another form of insanity,” she muses before Jimmy quite sensibly scuttles off.
The final scene, “At the Airport,” finds Alice in middle age in 2005, embarked upon a daunting interior monologue in which she speaks of herself in the third person. With Bill (John Stahl) at her side eating throughout, Alice reveals the toll taken on her psyche by cumulative loss and the apparent absence of God, “the almighty hermit.”
Can her reverie be shaken? Yes, Murphy suggests, but only when grief meets grief. On cue, a scurrying waitress (Crotty again) plants herself at Alice’s table in the final minutes of the play to lay bare a death that has been plaguing her waking hours. And suddenly, Alice summons from within “this power” by which a woman hell-bent on disconnection finds it in herself to connect: Call it catharsis by authorial fiat of the first order.
Few plays of this reflective sort are ever the sum total of their descriptions, as was borne out regularly by the late Sarah Kane at this same address. Rickson knows this truism better than anyone from having directed “The Weir,” another Irish play in which storytelling builds to a final, genuinely overpowering release. A glance at Murphy’s text suggests that there’s a more plangent, elliptical strain to the writing than Rickson’s surprisingly austere, clinical staging ever brings out. As his “Bailegangaire” showed, Murphy writes with remarkable empathy for women when logorrhea isn’t sending him down the path of a more hyperactive Beckett.
And while Stevenson drives the play, and genuinely commands it, she seems fundamentally miscast. It’s not just that this most avowedly English of thesps doesn’t always sound convincingly Irish. More disconcerting is her actressy approach to a character gradually shutting down who also won’t shut up. The play might be infinitely more moving if acted by someone who wasn’t trying quite so hard to move us.