Most plays focus on the conflict sparked when different psychological states collide. “The Escapologist” does it the other way around. In his first collaboration with Scottish company Suspect Culture, English writer Simon Bent focuses on his character’s psychological states and puts the conflict aside. What his elliptical approach loses in dramatic tension in this cool and quietly fascinating show, it gains in behavioral analysis.
Bent’s starting point for this collaboration is “Houdini’s Box,” a work of pop psychology by practicing therapist Adam Phillips. Published in 2001, the book switches from biographical chapters about Harry Houdini — who came to symbolize the death-defying momentum of turn-of-the-century America — to composite descriptions of Phillips’ patients and their anxieties.
The author’s thesis is that the patients show the same patterns of repeated behavior as Houdini. Like the “justly celebrated self-liberator,” they live to escape, but somehow never reach freedom. Every time Houdini released himself, all he could do was dream up another escape. The story was the same whether he was cocooned in a straitjacket, immersed in water or hung upside down in front of a Gotham skyscraper: There was never a conclusion to this living soap opera because there was always another thrilling illusion ahead.
Inspired by the themes of the book, Bent introduces a bereaved daughter, an unfaithful husband, a disturbed 12-year-old and an equally neurotic therapist, who wrestle with the challenge of facing their own psychological secrets. It’s easier for them to escape to the washroom, to leave therapy altogether or, in the unsettling case of 12-year-old Shannon, to play a bizarre game of hide-and-seek — in which simply by covering her eyes she thinks she is invisible and ready to be rediscovered — than it is to look truth in the eye.
Their behavior is like builders Dan and Paul who, instead of replacing the rotting timbers in a customer’s ceiling, simply cover the old ones in concrete, satisfying themselves that the problem is “out of sight, out of mind.” When the roof falls in, the symbolism is clear.
In between Bent’s collage of overlapping scenes from the therapist’s couch, helmer Graham Eatough weaves Houdini-style imagery into the background — most strikingly in the entrance of Paul Blair, sliding headfirst from the ceiling onto Laura Hopkins’ loft-like set with its patches of fiberglass insulation exposed beneath a series of panels.
Eatough prefers an uninflected performance style, his actors using a dry, downbeat delivery despite the emotional turmoil that lies beneath the surface. At its best, the effect is dreamy and detached; at worst cold and unengaged. The production’s sedate pace mutes some of the humor in Bent’s script, even as it enhances the atmosphere of contemplation.
The bewildered characters look for answers from the therapist, played by an equally perplexed Kevin McMonagle. He gives them quizzical looks and open-ended questions, and all they find is a space for reflection. In this, “The Escapologist” shares with “Houdini’s Box” a sense of never quite reaching the point: Every time you think you’ve cracked the complexities and contradictions of the human mind, the truth slips out of your grasp.
Such lack of resolution is not the usual stuff of drama, and “The Escapologist” is not a usual play. Enriched by a sumptuous, haunting live piano score by David Paul Jones, reconfiguring the melody of Aker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore,” the production sets its own pace and its own agenda. The result is a thoughtful work, too lacking in narrative thrust to set pulses racing, yet absorbing and unsettling all the same.