Poison, by Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans, opens slowly, almost listlessly… The stage is bare, but for a white bench and a large soda machine. There’s a man, standing still, looking at his phone, taking a few steps, stopping… But if you stay with it, you’ll be rewarded when the action kicks in. Not that there’s momentous physical movement or vocal fireworks. Rather it’s through the tension between the torrent of words and the silences, and the thrust and parry of the dialogue, that the play exerts its hold on us.
Poison revolves around a couple who lost a child ten years ago, and haven’t seen each other in the intervening years. They’re meeting to ostensibly talk with the cemetery manager about the need to move their son’s grave, due to soil contamination. Over the course of the play, the characters (only known as She and He) try to reconnect, reestablish a relationship, and remember why they fell in love in the first place, as well as understand why they were torn apart. The dialogue captures ordinary people caught in an extraordinary situation, and their attempts to use language to clarify and heal, or wield it as a weapon. The silences reinforce both the inadequacy of language to express feelings and the hesitancy people sometimes have to speak for fear of offending the other person. We see the characters’ defenses break down as they say things they’ve previously been unable to and slowly realize they can’t go back to the way they were… The play clearly shows us that only by reconciling with the past can we move forward.
The sparse setting is perfect for this production – you won’t find any excess (which would be so easy given the subject) – and there’s nothing to stop the characters from saying what they need to say or what they’ve wanted to say to each other.
This production by Origin Theatre, directed by Erwin Maas, features fine acting by Birgit Huppuch and Michael Laurence, as well as lovely vocals by Jordan Rutter (who sings Richard Strauss’s Morgen).
Poison is at the Becket Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. See it before it closes on December 11th.