Scripter Joyce Sachs imagines what might have occurred, had three of the beautiful people of the early 20th century — painters Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell and mountaineer George Mallory — spent 24 hours together at the legendary Grant/Bell retreat in Sussex Downs, England, during the last day of summer, 1923. Sachs has wrought a listenable discourse on the nature of love, art, friendship and sex, with only the barest friction to elevate the emotions and voices of these charming sophisticates. Under the understated, impressively balanced helming of Jules Aaron, this trio exudes a captivating charm that actually outdistances Sachs’ material.
Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), older sister of writer Virginia Woolf, and Duncan Grant (1885-1978) had been the guiding lights of the Bloomsbury Group, a consortium of writers, artists and intellectuals that included such notables as Woolf, novelist E.M Forster, poet T.S. Eliot, economist John Maynard Keynes and philosopher Bertrand Russell. By 1923, the group’s heyday had long passed.
Bell (Carolyn Hennesy) and Grant (Robert Stephenson) are now quite happy isolating themselves at their country home, free to work and inspire each other’s talents. That Bell is married with three children, and Grant is homosexual merely adds texture to their colorful interactions.
Sachs has placed the two artists in a tranquil setting after a weekend of entertaining family and friends. The device cleverly allows the vocally malleable Stephenson to re-create the colorful characters who had recently occupied the Bell/Grant abode, giving opportunity for witty and clever observations about their lives and others’.
Hennesy and Stephenson offer transcendent portrayals of these two visions of intellectual, artistic and physical beauty. It’s so enjoyable watching them chatter around Tom Buderwitz’s beautifully lived-in cottage setting that it’s easy to overlook Sachs’ repetitive, often self-indulgent dialogue, which overstates its premise.
The action picks up and takes a decidedly abstruse menage-a-trois turn with the unannounced and uninvited arrival of Grant’s schooldays pal Mallory (Ralph Lister), greeted with unabashed enthusiasm by Grant and reserved cordiality by Bell.
Mallory, who gained fame in two unsuccessful attempts to conquer Mount Everest, is gearing up for another effort and wants Grant to join him. Lister is perfectly cast as the clear-eyed chiseled Adonis, who would be equally believable climbing Everest, teaching in a university or modeling nude for Grant.
Helmer Aaron creates moments of exquisite sexual tension as Lister’s Mallory enthusiastically thrusts himself into the carefully constructed world of his two friends. As Grant deals with the tangible presence of a former love, and Bell faces the possibility of losing her live-in muse, long dormant passions, resentments, truths and needs are stirred up but not resolved. As envisioned by Sachs, Mallory’s visit is merely another ripple in the iron-clad relationship between Bell and Grant that was to continue until her death in 1961.
“Equinox” has all the credentials to move up to a larger venue or an Off Broadway staging. It would have stronger legs with some judicious editing. There’s not enough thematic material to warrant its current length despite the comeliness of its ensemble.