Following last season’s Lincoln Center Theater production of “The Clean House,” the belated discovery of Sarah Ruhl on New York stages continues apace with “eurydice,” the distinctive young playwright’s 2003 reimagining of the Greek myth about love that transcends death. Previously seen at Berkeley Rep and Yale Rep, the production is exquisitely staged by director Les Waters and an inventive design team. Ruhl’s wild flights of the imagination, some deeply affecting passages and beautiful imagery provide transporting pleasures, yet this early work is only partly satisfying, its Freudian meditations and stiff lyricism too often at odds with its heartfelt emotions.
Ruhl’s breakthrough play, “The Clean House,” established her as an exciting new voice in American theater by keeping one foot firmly planted in naturalistic presentation and narrative logic while the other danced gracefully in freewheeling magic realism. The anchoring compassion that made the play so rewarding is no less evident in “eurydice,” but it’s clouded by mannered writing that’s less mature, veering frequently into poetic preciousness — starting with the lower-case title.
There are also two problematic performances. Ruhl has shifted the perspective of the much-traveled Orpheus myth from the grief-stricken composer (Joseph Parks) to his beloved, bookish Eurydice (Maria Dizzia), the rapture and pain of their romantic love now vying for supremacy with the heroine’s unbroken ties to her deceased father (Charles Shaw Robinson).
While the intention appears to have been to make Eurydice a contemporary woman with the soul of a flower child, Dizzia has the clipped upward inflections of the current dim generation, which undercuts the character’s intelligence. It points up the dumb choices that seal the fate of this daddy’s girl and doom poor lovestruck sap Orpheus. Dizzia is achingly moving at times — particularly in a heartbreaking letter in which she relinquishes her love for Orpheus and provides instructions for his future wife. But in a performance steeped in artificiality, she creates hurdles that impede empathetic involvement. She’s not a natural flake like, say, Mary-Louise Parker, and the beatific smile pinned to her face for much of the play betrays a certain strain.
Despite being somewhat sidelined as Orpheus, Parks is utterly disarming in the dogged perseverance of his love, refusing to acknowledge the boundaries that separate earthly existence from death.
All the performances are characterized by a deliberately non-naturalistic approach, at times pushing Ruhl’s fanciful writing over the edge. This is particularly the case with Mark Zeisler’s grating turn as the Lord of the Underworld, who lures Eurydice on her wedding day to his high-rise apartment, from which she plummets to an untimely death.
The depiction of hell not as a standard-issue fiery pit but as a cool, aquamarine-tiled Roman bath (shades of the spa set for David Leveaux’s “Nine” revival) is a brilliant stylistic stroke, constructed at an odd tilt by designer Scott Bradley. “We make it real nice here, so people want to stick around,” says the infantile underworld ruler, who enters his watery domain on a tricycle to a blast of Guns N’ Roses. Bray Poor’s textured soundscape of water, wind and music and Russell H. Champa’s ravishing lighting add considerably to the evocative setting.
The combination of Greek mythology with water imagery to explore enduring love inevitably recalls Mary Zimmerman’s superior “Metamorphoses.” But Waters and Ruhl conspire to create original, at times breathtaking, stage pictures — some elaborate, others arrestingly simple.
Eurydice and later Orpheus descend to hell in an elevator whose downward path is marked by light panels in the rear wall, opening to reveal a torrent of rain that washes across the stage. Similar panels illuminate letters that travel between life and the afterlife. Observing from below ground, Eurydice’s father tenderly mimes walking her down the aisle on her wedding day, later dancing a jitterbug with an imaginary partner during the reception. When his daughter joins him in the underworld but fails to recognize him, her memory and communication skills erased during the river crossing of her journey, he lovingly builds her a room in which she can feel safe, using only a ball of string. That wordless sequence is the play’s most transfixing moment.
If the quirks sometimes feel cumbersome — as in the vaudevillian chorus of talking Stones (Gian-Murray Gianino, Carla Harting, Ramiz Monsef), outfitted like Tim Burton-esque Edwardian zombies — when it all connects, the melding of stylistic flourishes and bold theatricality with humanism and an unapologetic romantic streak makes Ruhl’s work invigorating.
That mix is neatly captured by Robinson in a gracious performance that conveys both the sadness of death and the joy of spiritual reunion. Despite the admonishing voices of the Stones and the Lord, urging forgetfulness, her father remains determined to guide the dead Eurydice to an understanding both of her present circumstances and her past life and love on earth. His gentle cushioning of the chasm dividing sorrowful memory from untroubled oblivion gives the drama a depth of feeling that helps counter its florid self-consciousness. Paternal/filial love here ultimately trumps its romantic counterpart, even if both are irreversibly colored by loss.
Echoing the sweet, sad music with which Orpheus gains entry to the underworld on an ill-fated mission to retrieve his bride, it’s the wrenching pain of remembering, of clinging to something as fragile as love even beyond the seeming finality of death, that courses through Ruhl’s imperfect but poignant play.