In the final scene of “Colder Than Here,” one of the characters acknowledges her family has never had and may never acquire “this fully functioning, talking thing.” So given the stilted communications and British reserve of four family members attempting to cope here with impending death, it might have been prudent of playwright Laura Wade to throw out an emotional lifeline to her audience. Its refusal to indulge in sentimentality is admirable, but this mannered, melancholy play elicits a mainly impassive response, which is no small obstruction in a work dealing with loss.
To be fair, the problem appears to lie less with Wade, a rising star in British theater, than with director Abigail Morris, who staged the original Soho Theater production in London earlier this year. Perhaps a British cast was more successful in coaxing the poignancy and humor out of the clipped cadences of Wade’s meticulously pruned dialogue. Morris, however, has been unable to establish tangible connections between her American cast members or to plug them into the material in any satisfying way. The result is static and lifeless.
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American actors often struggle to relax into the rhythms of English speech patterns; despite having proven themselves elsewhere, the women in this generally capable cast are no exception. As Myra, who has bone cancer and a life expectancy of less than a year, Judith Light is all dour schoolmarmish efficiency, so much so that when she does become choked with emotion, her tears feel hollow and false. Playing her daughters Jenna and Harriet, respectively, Lily Rabe speaks in an affected monotone while Sarah Paulson has the measured, upward-inflected delivery of a children’s TV presenter.
Only South Africa-born Brian Murray, as Myra’s determinedly detached husband Alec, displays any real ease with accent and dialogue. The glimpses he provides into the cracks in Alec’s wall of stiff formality are the most touching moments in an otherwise arid 90-minute intermissionless play.
Jeff Cowie’s uninteresting set and Brian H. Kim’s projections combine to depict both the Bradley family’s humble living room in Leamington Spa and the wooded areas in the West Midlands where Myra goes to scout burial plots. These excursions punctuate Myra’s planning at home of her own environmentally friendly funeral, the broad strokes of which are outlined in an amusing PowerPoint presentation, beamed onto the rear wall: no funeral director or mortician; woodland burial; no headstone; biodegradable cardboard coffin; no Astroturf.
The exacting pragmatism of Myra’s planning leaves her husband and daughters little to focus on but their lack of preparedness for her death. The family’s buttoned-up nature makes open acknowledgement of their anxiety a raw and painful thing, increasingly so as the build-it-yourself coffin arrives and is prominently positioned in the middle of the living room.
“I can’t really do problems,” says Alec, who buries himself instead in the maddening task of persuading customer service reps in Glasgow to respond to his winterlong pleas for boiler repairs.
Also flailing about in the house without warmth is needy Jenna, whose history of boyfriend crises and eating disorders indicates she is accustomed to center-stage positioning of her own tragedy. The more self-reliant Harriet proves only marginally less fragile, struggling visibly to keep her composure.
While some of her dialogue has a studied artificiality, Wade’s writing is marked by careful avoidance of contrived epiphanies. Instead, it’s an almost imperceptible process by which the scared Myra gradually pulls her family closer and they overcome their reticence enough to express their lacerating sorrow.
While such restraint may be commendable, however, the cast fails to etch the nuances of feeling that could have made the unyielding drama less distant and more involving. It’s a distinct problem of this emotionally antiseptic staging that not one insight into the characters as they prepare to grieve or to die is as quietly affecting as the helplessness, pain and frustration we hear in Alec’s one-sided phone conversation with a heating technician.
Colder than here? Hard to imagine.