One of the mysteries of live theater is that you sometimes take your seat anticipating that this one will be special. Not because you have been hearing it praised for months, or because it took Herculean efforts to even get tickets (as in Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen). No, a new play in previews, for which the plot and subject matter are unlikely to have been widely discussed. If it is an import, there is perhaps advance word; but that can be wildly fallible. (We have had two highly-acclaimed British imports in the last three days, and the other one struck me as the most distasteful piece of theater I’ve seen in years.)
Sitting at the Minetta Lane for Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys, a one-person play starring Carey Mulligan, I was for whatever reason anticipating a special evening. I was amply rewarded, but the play is wildly different from what I expected when it began. It moved even further from expectations midway through, leading to an exhilarating finish.
Now, this is where the diligent reviewer outlines what the author and director are up to, providing prospective theatergoers with enough information to make them put the play on the list of shows we’d better get tickets for and soon. But every element of what I’d normally describe would serve to prepare the future theatergoer for what is best left unknown. At least, my sense of discovery throughout the evening would surely have been dampened had I’d known where Kelly, the Tony Award-winning librettist of Matilda, was leading us.
The play does indeed start out as expected; that is, Mulligan—a British actor known for films like An Education (for which she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination) and well-remembered for her Broadway performance opposite Bill Nighy in the 2015 revival of David Hare’s Skylight—takes the stage with such command that we are immediately rapt. It seems to me, in fact, that Mulligan purposely speaks softly, the better to draw the audience close while acclimating us to the accent.
The first of 13 scenes establishes Mulligan as a personable and thoroughly ingratiating performer to spend the evening with. The second displays a considerably different character. Is it an older-and-wiser variation of the first? Or someone else altogether? The third scene establishes what is to come, or at least what we think is to come. We spend the first third of the hundred-minute play impressed with the actor and the character; and the midsection impressed by the way the author pulls things together into an engrossing whole.
Then comes the crux of the play, which leaves us slack-jawed and shattered by what transpires. And which, on reflection (after you have recovered from the shock), you realize that Kelly and Mulligan and director Lyndsey Turner have been preparing us for since the very first lines of the play.
Turner, whose lone Broadway chore was the endlessly fascinating Machinal at the Roundabout in 2014, proves a perfect director for the occasion; that is, she helps Mulligan through a script laden with emotions, contradictions and mystery without losing our attention, our goodwill, or our thorough belief in what we see. Also on hand is set designer Es Devlin, who contrived that unforgettable turntable set upon which Turner staged Machinal. The set here, which initially seems to be a simple cyclorama suitable for a one-character play, turns into a massive country kitchen/living room overwashed with robin’s egg blue. (Those of us familiar with Devlin’s work will not be surprised by the eye-popping surprise she springs on us at a key moment in the play.) Oliver Fenwick also offers keen support with his lighting design.
This production hails from the Royal Court Theatre, the non-profit house on Sloane Square which has provided London with numerous influential dramas starting in 1956 with the daddy of modern English plays, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, the best play of the 2017-18 New York season, originated at the Royal Court. So did Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, in my estimation the best play of the decade, which will land at the Jacobs in October.
Girls & Boys comes to New York through the courtesy of Audible, the audiobook producer owned by Amazon. They seem to have determined that the attention from a successful Off-Broadway engagement can provide a strong marketing push, and have thus entered into an extended agreement with the Minetta Lane Theatre in the heart of Greenwich Village. Whether this pans out or not is hard to tell; let it be stated Audible-at-the-Minetta has started with two wholly successful, top-flight entertainments, the first being Harry Clarke starring Billy Crudup.
As for the present offering, the magic contrived by Mulligan and Kelly makes Girls & Boys an unforgettable evening of theater. Do go, if you can; but try to avoid any discussion of what you are going to see.
Girls & Boys opened June 27, 2018 at the Minetta Lane and runs through July 22. Tickets and information: girlsandboystheplay.com