The best gets saved, most definitely, for last in “Under the Blue Sky,” the series of three linked duologues that makes up one alternately frustrating and intriguing play. For much of its first two thirds, you may wonder at a newfound harshness in tone from 26-year-old playwright David Eldridge, here making his Royal Court debut after stints at the Donmar Warehouse, the Bush and the Hampstead theaters. In its final stretch, the “blue sky” of the title at last starts to shine, and with it Eldridge’s singularly sunny and — this time around — rather willfully sentimental voice. His conclusion insists, repeatedly so, on a cloudless sky even if what the play seems hell-bent on presenting are the various storms and scars that attend human beings in their moments of need.
That’s certainly true of the first of the play’s three encounters, an edgy give-and-take between a clutching young woman named Helen (Samantha Edmonds) and her onetime bedmate and longer-serving friend, Nick (Justin Salinger), who, if the theater’s smells are any indication, cooks a mean chili. While the IRA is bombing East London’s Docklands (an explosion opens the show), Nick is dropping a bombshell all his own: a teacher, like all the play’s characters, he has decided to move to a new school, which will mean ending a relationship with Helen that, fundamentally, never really got started.
Their conversation moves toward and away from violence while duologue number two takes place on a Strindbergian emotional knifepoint. Fifteen months have passed, and thirtysomething teachers Graham (Jonathan Cullen) and Michelle (Lisa Palfrey) are having a fevered tryst that turns out to be no less fraught than the play’s opening accord. Hurling invective as readily as they rip off one another’s clothes, the two are embroiled in a brutish, games-filled encounter that might give even Rob Becker pause; crying out “I’m a man, a fucking man,” the initially mild-mannered Graham emerges as the English theater’s very own — and defenseless — caveman, who exists at a thinly veiled remove from truly destructive rancor.
The skies clear in every sense for the third dramatic diptych, again set 15 months after the scene before, this time on a summer’s day in Devon. Former colleagues Robert (a likably burly Stanley Townsend) and Anne (Sheila Hancock) together share past and present travel plans even as they skirt around the salient topic — whether the older, graying Anne and the none-too-boytoyish Robert will attempt the romance from which they, on some profound level, are living in terrified retreat. What joins the three scenes has less to do with a shared profession than the lives we see dramatized that can get discussed.
Suffice it to say that the knife-wielding Helen of scene one courses crucially through the rest of the play, her fate acting as a counterpoint — or not, depending on the individual — to the particular teller of her decidedly sad tale.
In previous plays like the 1996 “Keeping It Up” and the subsequent (and greatly undervalued) “Summer Begins,” Eldridge impressed not least for the graceful convergence of plot, character and compassion. That last element is as belatedly felt here as the scenario itself seems a shade overconceived, rather as if Eldridge — much, in fact, like a student fulfilling an admittedly tricky assignment — were trying to write a puzzle play in order to impress a favorite teacher.
“Under the Blue Sky” achieves a sort of after-the-fact resonance, though I’m not sure to what extent audiences may want to go the distance, especially since some of the play’s various patternings — reminiscences figure throughout, as does talk (and even the re-creation) of present and past wars — seem more than a little preconceived.
Rufus Norris’ traverse staging can’t entirely forestall a certain coyness to the writing, just as two of the three women — Hancock’s moist-eyed Anne movingly excepted — paint a worrying picture of a vengeful and/or unstable fairer sex. As the action deftly shifts between the two imposing slabs of Katrina Lindsay’s set, one is left pondering not so much the blue sky of the title as, in fact, its tempestuous opposite — the desperation for love when what we really feel is fear or hate.