It’s always nice to hear well-shaped words of melodic dialogue rolling from the stage. So let’s not kick U.K. scribe Karoline Leach back to Blighty for failing to do what she attempted to do with “Tryst,” an eerie character study of two social outcasts trying to keep body and especially soul alive in the unforgiving world of Edwardian England. While Leach writes with a certain compassionate lyricism about a smooth con man and the lonely shopgirl he targets to rob, their behavior is so out of character that the only possible reaction to the plot’s glaring contrivances is disbelief.
Helmer Joe Brancato has tried to keep faith with the surreal form of this two-hander by ordering up (from designers Jeff Nellis and David Korins) a darkly lit, dank-looking street meant to show how London turns its metaphorical back on anyone born outside the privileged upper classes. But the abstract design backfires by taking the characters entirely out of the specific social context that has shaped them.
Left to fend for themselves, George Love (Maxwell Caulfield) and Adelaide Pinchin (Amelia Campbell) narrate the stories of their lives directly to the audience. And while they make their initial moves in a visual vacuum, the precise detailing of their costumes (by Alejo Vietti) makes it clear who they are — and what they are not.
George is a cool and handsome con artist who preys on lonely women by telling them the lies they want to hear. “Mind you, I’m never cruel,” he says, explaining his custom of first going through a bogus marriage with the women he then robs. “I always go through the formality of the wedding night — and I leave them smiling.”
As George shrewdly surmises, Adelaide is “ripe” for his roguish attentions. She’s a sweet-faced but plain little wallflower who lives with her parents and works her fingers to the bone in the back room of a millinery shop. (“We all got something wrong with us, that’s why we’re in the back room,” is her plaintive explanation.)
But Adelaide is not entirely bereft of hope for a better future. She takes pride in her needlework, dreams of a lover and pretties herself with the brooch left to her by an aunt — although she has yet to touch the £50 that she also inherited.
So far, the characters seem entirely true to themselves. With his going-to-pot good looks and the glacial glances he turns on his prey, Caulfield makes a coolly attractive bounder of the narcissistic George.
In her far more sympathetic role, Campbell finds real tragic dimension in Adelaide’s innocence. Even as her flute-like voice speaks aloud her shopgirl’s dreams, her busy hands tell the true story in a private language of twisted fingers, clutched palms and tightly balled fists.
Once George and Adelaide have gone through their bogus wedding and are settled in their seaside hotel room in Weston-super-Mare, the surreal mood is over and it’s time for some truth-telling. Even the scenic design shows the need for more realism, with its fussily detailed rendering of a rented bedroom.
But Leach just doesn’t deliver. While Adelaide does, indeed, let her hair down, revealing the secrets of her painful past, the character reversals she goes through are psychologically unfounded, despite Campbell’s cunning efforts to make them believable.
For his part, George becomes more and more caught up in the lies that are his only protection — even when he is supposed to be speaking truthfully. Caulfield flails around, trying to play truth and fiction out of both sides of his mouth; but he looks as phony as his speeches sound.