The great rhetorical question of modern playwriting seems to be, Why have characters interact when they can talk directly to the audience? Play after play saddles its characters with endless monologues, making them describe events rather than perform them. And most often, this willfully impersonal style results in something like “Transatlantic Liaison,” a play about feverish romance that never even gets lukewarm.
Playwright Fabrice Rozie builds his script on distance from the start, adapting the letters that French protofeminist Simone de Beauvoir (Elizabeth Rothan) wrote to her lover, American novelist Nelson Algren (Matthew S. Tompkins). Though he includes a few two-person scenes, the bulk of the dramaturgy has the cast reciting de Beauvoir’s love notes, discussing an affair we never see.
Rozie clearly loves the sound of de Beauvoir’s voice. Were this a one-person show, that devotion might be satisfying, especially since Rothan delivers her speeches so well.
Whether confessing her desire for the man who unsettles her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre or bemoaning the distance between them, Rothan puts the character at the mercy of impulse. We see her intelligence as she chooses words for her feelings, but her fragile posture and fluid expressions reveal the quaking heart beneath the mind.
Yet Rozie dilutes these solo moments with half-hearted gestures toward Algren. There could have been fireworks in showing the lovers together, but instead the American is a mere tool for de Beauvoir’s voice. Mostly, he just picks up her letters and reads them aloud, never getting a character of his own.
Even in the scenes where the two interact, Algren’s cliched language suggests the playwright doesn’t care to finesse his identity. But he’s still onstage, a formless presence that only undermines de Beauvoir’s feelings. If this bland lump — played by Tompkins with one-note brooding — is what she loves, then her passion seems silly. Better to let her stand alone and let our minds create a man more deserving of her.
Director John McLean tries to compensate for these two talking heads with some shameless theatrical gimmicks. His baldest stab at metaphor is an onstage cellist (Camilla Boatright), whose music apparently represents passion. McLean places her behind a gauzy white curtain, which David Lovett occasionally lights to reveal her as she plays. It’s a pretty image, but it adds nothing. The production would mean just as much — and have one less distraction — if the cellist disappeared.
But if McLean’s work proves light and insubstantial, then that of Lovett (who also designed the set) rankles for the opposite reason. The play bounces between a half-dozen locales — and occasionally lands in that limbo space where monologues unspool — yet Lovett crafts a pair of stationary bedrooms. The massive walls impose over every scene, and the designer’s lighting never cloaks the clunky furniture. Even when the lovers are supposed to be at the beach, we see de Beauvoir’s desk and Algren’s bed, like actors who forgot to exit and think they’ll go unnoticed if they just stand still.
But the set looms as a permanent diversion from de Beauvoir’s words. There amidst the furniture, the Frenchwoman’s spirited life becomes a bloodless trifle.