Beane – no relation of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean - has a sister, Joan, who leads a busy professional life, although we do not know what she does. Joan’s husband, Harry, is also worried about Beane, but not so much. They live in a sleek, well-appointed home, whereas Beane’s ceiling descends slowly, as if to crush him. Molly may or may not exist. Once bolted on to Beane’s life, she becomes his own mirror image. She wears the same clothes as him. She keeps his cup in her pocket and kisses it. As an architect-hating thief, arsonist and all-purpose “liberator” she also shows loner Beane how to live. He becomes verbose and decides to try “people.”
Thus expressed, baldly and literally, the play sounds ridiculous. But it is so beautifully acted in John Crowley’s production that impatience gives way to absorption. Cillian Murphy’s bearded, introverted Beane becomes a transfigured eccentric. The play is spun from deft, often very funny, shards of dialogue and a sort of embarrassingly precise detail – Harry remembers that Joan first smelt of ripe cantaloupe melon; Beane was bullied on a school bus by a boy pecking at his neck with a pencil – that is utterly convincing.
There is a lovely scene in a restaurant, where Beane discovers the joys of a turkey sandwich and smothers the waiter (James Scales) in unnecessary compliments, and a weird one where Joan reinvents her libido while telling her brother about the loss of an earlier boyfriend.
Murphy is a perfect study in suspended animation. Neve Campbell as Molly displays the right urchin, playful qualities that incorporate mischievous criminal tendencies without condoning them. As she and Murphy play out their fantasy relationship – how they might have met, swimming nude, devouring each other - you feel the dialogue might qualify for a bad sex award, but it just pulls itself together in time.
As Kolvenbach demonstrated in his On An Average Day (an average, sub-Sam Shepard play seen here four years ago starring Woody Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan), he does write stuff actors can fashion into good theatrical performances.
Joan and Harry are delightfully played by two visiting American actors with solid credentials and several Emmy and Grammy awards between them. Kristen Johnston is like a young Kathleen Turner, a really sharp actress with an earthy presence and lethal comic timing. Michael McKean looks a little like Tim Pigott-Smith, with the same sort of understated technical assurance.
Crowley’s production, very well designed by Scott Pask, and lit by Howard Harrison, is full of love rock songs on the soundtrack that comment ironically on Beane’s predicament and help along a short, ninety-minute play (no interval) that sticks in the memory.
- Michael Coveney