The premiere in English of “Poison” by Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans, presented by the Origin Theatre Company, is annoying before it starts. On entering the theater we see co-star Michael Laurence, cast as He, standing silently on stage. Occasionally he moves about. It seems a total affectation to have to observe him doing nothing except making one wonder when the play will begin. Positioning an actor or actors on stage for a long time before the actual beginning is something directors do sometimes, but unless something special is going on (like donning costumes), the gambit always seems pretentious to me. I wonder what it feels like for the idle actor.
Finally, Laurence is joined by Birgit Huppuch as She, and the conversation between them in this translation by Rina Vergano and under the direction of Erwin Maas begins. They are meeting, after a divorce and long estrangement, at the cemetery where their young son, killed when hit by a car during their marriage, is buried. She witnessed the accident.
It is quickly clear that the atmosphere is poisoned by the anger of She, who, without saying so, harbors the possibility that they might get together again. He attempts to be conciliatory, but when he eventually gets to tell her that he has married again, and worse, that his wife is expecting a child, She is terribly shaken. She also is annoyed that He’s mother, with whom she retains contact, withheld the information.
The dialogue comes across as a verbal dance of emotions, both articulated and repressed. Huppuch and Laurence are very good at what they do, and at times we feel for them as people whose lives were shattered, ostensibly by the death of their son.
I say ostensibly because one can conclude that other issues were at play. If a husband and wife were happily close, a terrible accident might have bound them further together in support of one another, unless one blamed the other, which does not seem to be the case here. Of course, one never knows. But in watching He and She facing off, there really are no signs indicating that they ever were in a joyful relationship before the tragedy.
Naming a couple He and She may be a bid to tell us that the story could be universal and apply to anyone anywhere, but there is always a risk of preciousness.
Huppuch and Laurence are excellent together, and when She flies into a rage, the effect is withering. In a further effort to raise the stakes, there are live falsetto vocals by Jordan Rutter, who starts hauntingly from the balcony and slowly descends and walks along the aisles while singing and then crosses to the other side of the theater. The touch adds a counterpoint of opera or church-like ambiance to the tension-fraught confrontation taking place on stage. At the Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-239-6200.