By Joe Hurley
“Haunted” by Edna O’Brien • Theater A, 59E59 Theaters • Through Jan. 2, 2011
Edna O’Brien wrote her first novel in 1960, a full half-century ago. The book, “The Country Girls,” was firmly rooted in her own experience of growing up with two sisters and a brother in Ireland’s County Clare.
The Irish author has written novels and stories, as well as two biographies, and a few plays, one of which, “Triptych,” was seen in New York in a successful 2004 production by the Irish Repertory Theatre.
Now O’Brien is back with what may well be her strongest play to date, “Haunted,” at the 59E59th Theaters, part of the organization’s annual “Brits Off-Broadway” celebration.
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The aptly titled “Haunted” is a venture into new territory for O’Brien, and provides two of the most taxing roles she’s ever written for actors.
She and director Braham Murray have been fortunate in casting two of the finest actors on the planet, Brenda Blethyn and Niall Buggy, to play Gladys and Jack Berry, the self-tortured couple at the heart of O’Brien’s wrenching, but frequently funny play.
“Haunted” is set in a room in Blackheath, London, an unfamiliar district not in the city’s center. O’Brien selected the location for its lack of familiarity.
The Berrys’ marriage has been poisoned by, among other things, the unexplained death of a child, apparently the only one they managed to produce in the course of a lengthy and troubled union.
Beth Cooke plays Hazel, a young stranger who has come to the Berry’s apartment in the hope of renting or borrowing a period garment for a client who has been invited to a black-and-gold ball, the theme of which is the Twenties.
Jack Berry, who is, at age sixty, unemployed because of real or perceived illness, has an inherently positive nature and tries to help anyone who needs assistance, Hazel included.
Gladys Berry, on the other hand, is a sour, embittered woman in her late fifties, unhappily employed by a doll factory, with a job installing the creatures’ eyes and their eyelashes, which are required to move in a certain prescribed manner.
Buggy’s poignant character gets the best of the bargain with playwright O’Brien. For one thing, Jack often addresses the audience, revealing his heart to them with eloquence and candor, while Gladys’s appearances, full of rancor and resentment, threaten to grow repetitious and even tedious.
In addition to actress Blethyn’s brilliance, and O’Brien’s skill as a writer, the part of Gladys is “saved” by a lengthy monologue she delivers late in the play, with the actress demonstrating why she is considered one of Britain’s greatest performers.
The youthful Cooke brings innocence and openness to the part of Hazel, which is just about all the role requires.
Director Simon Higlett’s rather creepy set features translucent walls and doorways, standing in, perhaps, as a sort of extended metaphor for playwright O’Brien’s title.
“Haunted” is far from the only recent play to concentrate on an exhausted marriage in burnout phase, the ashes of which show few, if any, glowing coals. It may not be fresh ground, but the genuinely remarkable Edna O’Brien covers it powerfully and meaningfully, making marital fury seem almost new again.
Meanwhile, Brenda Blethyn and Niall Buggy are showing their audiences what really terrific acting is all about.