Review: 'Poison' at the Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row

  • Thomas Burns Scully

New York Critic

As you enter the theatre, a man idles on stage near a bench and a drinks machine. The space is spartan, sparse, almost purgatorial. As the lights dim an opera singer gently croons a few bars from the back of the theatre. A woman joins the man on stage. They begin to talk, of poison in the ground, of having to move the grave of their son. It has been years since they last saw each other. The pain of what happened to them has not left, but has instead become a part of their beings. Their conversation is difficult, often petty and recriminatory, but continues on regardless. The couple dive down an old dark rabbit hole, not knowing exactly what they will find down there. This is Poison by Lot Vekemans, currently being staged for its American Premiere at the Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row by Origin Theatre.

Vekemans’ writing is extraordinarily good at capturing ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. Her dialogue is often strikingly wanting, in exactly the way you would expect from two relatively average people trying to say more than they are capable of saying. Grief doesn’t make them poets. If anything it limits their powers of expression, closes them off from it for fear of saying the wrong thing. It’s immensely powerful, and frustrating, to watch. Given theatrical convention, the audience expects, and is teased with, articulate revelation… and yet is almost consistently denied it. Back and forth of this kind forms the bulk of the play, two people trying to hit upon a simple answer and point of convergence and yet apparently ill-equipped to do so.

Brigit Huppuch and Michael Laurence are exhausting to watch on stage. Huppuch’s constantly grieving mother wears her heart on her sleeve, whether it’s well-advised or not. Laurence’s more stoic father is frustrating in his attempts to be rational, and though he appears to be the better adjusted of the two, his explanations often chime closely with denial. Put together, the two are a volatile combination, constantly trying to ignite or diffuse the other, all while trying to cement and rationalize their own point of view. The result is an acting marathon that both performers rise to with gusto.

The only production element that feels out of place is Jordan Rutter’s operatic offerings. These serve as act breaks and emotional transitions. Though Rutter’s voice is excellent, they feel superfluous to requirements and are confusingly surreal in the otherwise grounded world of Poison. They seemed not to serve as a respite, more of a delay to the otherwise evenly-paced action of the play. 

The usual adjectives for a play about grief don’t apply here. Poison is not gritty, raw, or unapologetic. It is grippingly real, with all the forced politeness, uncomfortable fumbling for meaning, treading on toes and accidental wounding that entails. It’s understated pain telegraphs it understanding of pain. It is what makes it stand out, and is the strongest argument I can make for going to see it.

Poison runs at the Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row through December 11th. Wed/Thur/Friday 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Sun 3pm. For more details and ticketing see origintheatre,org.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

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Photo: Birgit Huppuch and Michael Laurence in Poison. Photo by Lou Montesano.