One day I hope to see an actual production of Chekhov’s The Seagull – or really a production of any play – with an unstable performance that evokes the one being given by the extraordinary Denise Gough (who plays Emma, a drug-addicted actress) in Duncan Macmillan’s new mental health drama People, Places & Things, which is receiving its American premiere at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO following its debut at London’s National Theatre (in a co-production with Headlong) and a West End transfer.
Emma (an English actress with at least some professional credits to her name and a background in classic drama) is first seen playing the tragic Nina in the final scene of The Seagull, delivering Nina’s confessional monologue about knowing that she is a bad actress and regretting her poor lot in life. Her scene partner, the poor actor playing Konstantin, can tell something is wrong with Emma (and their audience can probably tell too), but he struggles mightily to push forward with the play anyway.
But once Emma is on the verge of topping off the stage, Jeremy Herrin’s production erupts into a chaotic fury of light, sound and movement, which ends with Emma in the dreary-looking waiting room of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. At first, Emma is on the phone with her estranged mother, instructing her where to find and stash away the drugs at her apartment – while simultaneously snorting coke on a counter.
Emma is a smart, well-read, belligerent, skeptical and smug person. In other words, a great character and a complex one too, and Gough (who will make her Broadway debut later this season in the revival of Angels in America) delivers an all-out, full-bodied performance.
The narrative of People, Places & Things – in which Emma must either adapt to/honor or reject/run away from the facility’s time-tested, traditional, 12-step treatment program – is not unlike One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which also contains a confrontational leading figure, a chorus of patients with their own problems and various medical staff members. The play’s title is a reference to the numerous everyday factors that can cause someone to fall back upon his or her addiction.
Macmillan and Herrin are not unknown to New York audiences. Macmillan co-adapted/co-directed 1984 on Broadway, and Herrin directed the recent Roundabout revivals of Noises Off and Wolf Hall. Combined with Gough’s “it girl” appeal and New York’s increasing familiar with the National Theatre (thanks to the increasingly indispensable NT Live series of filmed performances), it’s no surprise that People, Places & Things has become one of the most popular Off-Broadway shows of the fall.
The production contains endless inventive theatricality. The action takes place on a traverse-style stage, with the audience split into two opposite sections. Emma’s psychological disorientation is often conveyed by having multiple actresses (in the same costume) play her at once. Macmillan and Herrin aim to bring the audience into Emma’s frame of mind, in an intense style reminiscent of the 2000 film Requiem for a Dream, which also dealt with characters who are violently overtaken by drug addiction.
I am personally unsure whether the elaborate production values take away from (rather than enhance) the play’s analytical nature, in which characters debate the effectiveness, failings and essential purpose of the drug-rehabilitation system and whether to operate as a united community or as individuals with separate interests and goals within a mental health facility. With the use of opioids rising at an alarming rate in America, this is a discussion worth having right here and now.
A traverse stage setting is inherently problematic and distracting (since you are tempted to look at other audience members instead of the cast). I also question the decision to break the play into two acts rather than play it as a single act, especially since it is the second act is half the length of the first, and the play would probably work better in an uninterrupted rush.
All that being said, People, Places & Things remains one of the most exciting, provocative and critical-minded new plays of the season. It ought to have a future beyond this engagement, be it a commercial Broadway transfer or regional productions. Or, perhaps it is not too late to film the play and make it a part of the NT Live series. It would be the first time that a play that originated at the National Theatre was filmed in New York.