59E59 Theaters must have thought they’d pulled a coup in booking “Haunted” — a new play by Edna O’Brien, with juicy roles for thespic luminaries Brenda Blethyn and Niall Buggy — for their Brits Off Broadway series. But while the Irish scribe still speaks with silver tongue, there’s only enough substance in this slender meditation about the creeping discontentment that poisons a long-term marriage to support maybe a short story. And not even a couple of savvy old pros like Blethyn and Buggy can stand up to Braham Murray’s overwrought helming for Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theater.
Production designer Simon Higlett sets a proper stage for a memory play: watery green-paneled walls, transparent doors, eerie lighting (Johanna Town), and otherworldly music (Akintayo Akinbode). We’re rattling around in the mind of Jack Berry (Niall Buggy), a 60-ish chap who is haunted by two women who keep drifting in and out of his memory.
Gladys Berry (Brenda Blethyn) is his wife. Stout, but carefully groomed and working-class proud, the childless Mrs. Berry works as a line supervisor in a doll factory and Blethyn embodies every feisty fiber of her well-stuffed character. No wonder that Mr. Berry, an avid gardener, named a rose after her: Red Blush, “sturdy, with remarkable thorns.”
Hazel (Beth Cooke) is the twentysomething darling of Mr. Berry’s dreams, a mousy elocution teacher who isn’t above cashing in on the affectionate fantasies of a generous old codger. In other words, a shrewd cookie; except for the fact that, in Cooke’s bland perf, she comes across as the dullest girl-child on planet earth.
Mr. Berry’s problem, as Mrs. Berry often tells him, is that he’s a dreamer. A liar, actually. Passing himself off as a lonely, wealthy widower of gentle breeding, he pays for elocution lessons from Hazel with designer clothes and jewelry from his “dead” wife’s closet.
This farcical subterfuge can’t go on forever (although it does seem as if O’Brien’s over-long and maddeningly repetitive script would have it so). Mrs. Berry eventually sets a trap that exposes the romantic folly of her foolish husband. But whether by dramaturgical design, or the poignancy of Blethyn’s performance, the big reveal doesn’t humiliate Mr. Berry as much as it exposes Mrs. Berry’s own secret sorrows and unrealized dreams.
Buggy and Blethyn fit their old-married-couple roles like well-worn slippers. But Murray’s heavy directorial hand destroys whatever subtlety either actor, but especially Buggy, might have brought to O’Brien’s lyrical meditations on the yearnings and regrets of the melancholy partners in a marriage grown old and cold.