A house of women in wartime makes a promising starting point for “Gabriel,” which won Moira Buffini the 1997 LTW Award when it was produced by London’s Soho Theater. Helmer David Esbjornson lays sensitive hands on the WWII story — which takes place in the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands and asks how far a woman will go to protect her family — and the Atlantic comes through with a superb cast and savvy tech support. But while the characters struggle to resist their impulses, romantic and otherwise, the conflicts produce more emotional anxiety than dramatic tension. This one gets respect, but no transfer.
Play opens in 1943 on an island whipped by winter storms and occupied by Nazis, so you better believe that atmosphere counts here. An inventive and admirably efficient design team obliges.
Riccardo Hernandez’s impressionistic set suggests that the weather-beaten house in which the action takes place has become something of a domestic bunker. The half-lights of Scott Zielinski’s design tells us that the residents are living half-lives. And in Obadiah Eaves’s ominous soundscape, booming waves crash with the force of the artillery guns that are all over this island.
Dispossessed of their family home by the German command, Jeanne Becquet (Lisa Emery), her 10-year-old daughter, Estelle (Libby Woodbridge), her daughter-in-law, Lilian (Samantha Soule), and their housekeeper, Margaret (Patricia Conolly, giving a master class in crisp character definition), are squatting in tight quarters and trying to maintain “good relations” with the occupiers so they won’t steal the family silver.
As attractive women in occupied war zones often do, Jeanne has another option. To keep the family clothed and nourished during this punishing winter, she could become good friends, as it were, with the loutish Major she has just brought home from a dinner party.
In Emery’s diamond-hard perf, this seductive war widow initially tries to conceal her agenda behind a pinched smile and lovely, calculating eyes. The problem is the German officer she chooses to seduce.
Major Von Pfunz (Zach Grenier) does, indeed, appear to be a drunken fool. But by the time this canny fellow reveals his perfect command of the English language, he is privy to all the family secrets — including the damning intelligence that Lilian is Jewish and that the women are hiding a naked man in the attic.
Gabriel (Lee Aaron Rosen), the name the women have given the man in the attic, washed in from the sea with no memory of who he is or which side he’s fighting for. While this angelic apparition has a critical function to carry out, for much of the play he is lost in fuzzy symbolism.
Not that one really notices, given Grenier’s riveting presence as Major Von Pfunz, whose profound moral conflicts make everyone else’s issues seem trivial. A German romantic who admires English poetry (“so much delicate misery”) and is enchanted by Jeanne and her scrappy family, he is at the same time a loyal Nazi who believes in “a pure Europe.”
Grenier (a 2009 Tony nominee for “33 Variations”) applies a forceful style and something like tenderness to move this complex character through the various stages of his struggle to be taken as he is, from his early attempts at jovial charm (“Jokes hide often what is true”) to his final plea to be understood, if not loved (“I am not disgusting”). Whatever the playwright’s larger designs, they pale before the spectacle of such a monster making such a strong claim to humanity.