To pin down precisely what Brief Encounter is (a para-cinematic mock-expressionistic play with music? A self-conscious post-Luhrmann meta-movie-musical onstage?) would quickly exhaust the Earth’s dwindling supply of hyphens. I’ll settle for “cabinet of wonders,” which seems to get at the false-bottomed delights of this sui generis theatrical event from director Emma Rice and her eager-to-please Kneehigh Theatre troupe. Ferried more or less intact across the East River from St. Ann’s Warehouse to Studio 54, Brief is built atop filmmaker David Lean’s dour postwar chiaroscuro of the same name, about an impossible affair carried on by two married, decent, highly un-Byronic souls. (The 1945 film was based on Noel Coward’s star-crossed stage melodrama Still Life, and Rice has restored some of Coward’s original dialogue.)
But the film, with its doleful end-of-empire mood and accusing near-noir close-ups, is just a starting point: Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter is a giddily spinning zoetrope of interlocking illusions, an uninhibited fetish of Inhibition itself. More to the point, it’s about the thrill of watching someone else’s moral torment safely embalmed in celluloid — and doing so in a darkened theater, alongside row upon row of anonymous fellow voyeurs. Coward originally told the story as a way of interrogating his own gay-bourgeois conservatism: For him, it was a tragedy of civilization, about how society, by necessity, forecloses on the unruly expansiveness of the soul. For him, there was no way out. But for Kneehigh, the same scenario — and its very fact as a piece of cinema — is occasion for a full-body theater massage, with release: Everything repressed on the film is unleashed on the stage. The sensibility here is more Todd Haynes than Coward or Lean, more Far From Heaven than Design for Living; Graham Greene’s head would explode. There’s an irony that shapes this show’s ends, no doubt, but luckily for us, it’s the ecstatic, unsmug kind.
And did I mention the puppets? There are puppets. There are projections. There are people walking into motion pictures and vanishing forever. Remarkably, this whole farrago feels of a piece. The small ensemble, doubling for a cast of thousands, is uniformly excellent, periodically bursting into an a cappella rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, as well as performing cunningly chosen Coward songs (“Go Slow, Johnny,” “Any Little Fish”) that punctuate and underline the action in sparkling arrangements by Stu Baker. Many of the company members play in the small onstage swing band, which also performs before and after the show — stick around after the curtain, and they’ll almost certainly toss off jaunty jazzy covers of pop songs like “Survivor” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” (More shocking: This somehow isn’t horrible.) First among equals is the excellent Joseph Alessi, a hypertalented homunculus who’s equally compelling in several large-ish roles.
One note: I’d recommend sitting closer to the back, or in the balcony. Brief benefits from a wide angle; get too close and its grain starts to show. The play’s principal parts aren’t meant to be parsed or isolated literally. At St. Ann’s, the rake was steep and the auditorium was pitch-black: All action was collapsed and compressed at the proscenium line, and there was a remove between watched souls in the well of the theater and the watchers huddled together in the dark. At Studio 54, light can’t help spilling onto the audience, and the spell isn’t quite as dark and deep. It helps to keep a tantalizing distance, even when total ecstasy is well within ravishing range.