Full text of Ben Brantley's New York Times review, August 23rd 2013
HUDSON, N.Y. — The knives are always out. They hang, in a neat and gleaming row of nine, above the sink of the fashionable London home that is the setting for “Stockholm,” Bryony Lavery’s sharp and twisting liebestod of a play, which has been given a smashing American premiere at Stageworks/Hudson here.
Those knives may or not be used to puncture skin (I’m not telling, and I’m not sure) before the end of this hourlong study of one disturbingly codependent couple. But you’ll always be conscious of them, hovering like so many mini-swords of Damocles. They are reminders that given the right — or wrong — inhabitants, even the coziest domestic sanctuary can be a dangerous place.
First staged by Frantic Assembly in Plymouth, England, six years ago, “Stockholm” is on one level a torn-from-the-headlines sort of story. I won’t say which headlines, but if you’re a devoted consumer of tabloid TV, what happens, or may happen, in “Stockholm” will start to sound more and more familiar as you watch it.Yet as directed by Laura Margolis, the artistic director at Stageworks, and featuring precision-tooled performances by Jason Babinsky and Emily Gardner Hall, this play is more than an exercise in lurid sensationalism. Though it definitely provides some prurient kicks, “Stockholm” is also informed by the carefully measured dispassion and compassion that was evident in Ms. Lavery’s best-known previous work, “Frozen,” seen on Broadway in 2004.
Rendered with a pulsing eroticism that befits lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other, “Stockholm” is more hot-blooded than “Frozen,” which was remarkable for the calculated reserve with which it mapped the repercussions of a little girl’s murder. But as in “Frozen,” Ms. Lavery is doing her best to identify with people we don’t usually afford much sympathy. That means she is inviting us to crawl with her under the skins of some not very likable characters.
Granted, such empathy is easier to achieve with the partners of “Stockholm” than with the pedophile of “Frozen,” so memorably embodied in New York by Brian F. O’Byrne. You’ve probably met people like Todd (Mr. Babinsky) and Kali (Ms. Hall); you may even have behaved as they do, God help you. Attractive, trendy and smug, they’re a Fun Couple, or would like you to think so anyway, the sort who encase themselves into in an enviable cocoon-for-two of superiority.
When we first meet them, they’re planning a vacation to the European capital of the play’s title. As Todd tells us, it’s a place where the sun shines for entire days; of course, it also has its seasons of unending darkness. Todd shivers, almost imperceptibly, as he considers the idea of those long, long nights.
Evening is fast approaching in London on this particular day, Todd’s birthday, as it happens. He and Kali have just seen Ingmar Bergman’s“Seventh Seal,” as a prelude to a Scandinavian holiday, and they’re speaking in a twee pseudo-Swedish, their own private language. On the menu tonight for this adorable pair: an epicurean meal, prepared by Todd, and plenty of sex, drinking and dancing.
Choreography, the deft work of Jennifer Weber, is essential to “Stockholm,” since Todd and Kali are dancing fools and their range of movement swings wide. Sometimes they skip about as blithely as Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in “Singin’ in the Rain,” but their natural form would seem to be the apache dance, with its all-out brutality. In bed, needless to say, they’re highly kinetic, gold medal gymnasts.
The narrative use of dance serves a twofold and paradoxical purpose, both making us feel the couple’s shared sensual rhythms and keeping us at a remove, since a pas de deux admits two only. Yet it’s possible to say that Todd and Kali maintain a similar double vision about themselves. After all, they switch between the first and third persons when describing their lives.
Sometimes they seem to be looking on, Todd in particular, from an amazed and unhappy distance. Self-awareness, though, doesn’t change how they act. Their behavior is so beyond their resistance it might as well be coded in their genes.
“Stockholm” isn’t perfect. As in all of her work, Ms. Lavery lays it on a bit thick, starting with giving her characters names that suggest death. She doesn’t need such blatant signifiers, which come close to functioning as spoilers all by themselves. The double-edged nature of the relationship that shapes “Stockholm” mostly feels so organic that it seems a shame to burden it with signposts.
This is especially true when you have Mr. Babinsky and Ms. Hall giving such natural life to Todd and Kali’s extreme, lacerating ambivalence. These young performers are remarkably smooth in conveying spikiness. And they make us believe that from the moment they met (in a restaurant encounter, evoked with the strategic use of cutlery), everything Todd and Kali have done has been charged with dangerous contradiction.
As a resident of Columbia County, with a home not far from Hudson, I’m ashamed to say that this is my first visit to Stageworks, which has been in existence since 1996. (It moved into its current space in 2004.) I had heard especially good things last year about its premiere production of Kieron Barry’s “Tomorrow in the Battle,” and if it was as well executed as “Stockholm” is, I’m truly sorry to have missed it.
For though Stageworks undoubtedly has a small budget, “Stockholm” would seem to have made the most resourceful use of every dollar. I haven’t even mentioned the production design by Randall Parsons (set), Deena Pewtherer (lighting) and Ben Heyman (sound). All the elements collude here to keep you — as well as Todd and Kali — off balance in ways I wouldn’t dream of giving away. One hint, though: keep your eyes on the staircase.
By Bryony Lavery; directed by Laura Margolis; choreography by Jennifer Weber; sets by Randall Parsons; lighting by Deena Pewtherer; costumes by George W. Veale VI; sound by Ben Heyman; technical director/general manager, Phil Elman; stage manager, Jennifer Dobies. Presented by Stageworks/Hudson, Ms. Margolis, executive artistic director; at Stageworks, 41 Cross Street, Hudson, N.Y.; (518) 822-9667; stageworkshudson.org. Through Sept. 1. Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes.
WITH: Jason Babinsky (Todd) and Emily Gardner Hall (Kali).