Thursday, May 2, 2019

2 (2018-2019): KILLING TIME (seen May 1, 2019)

“A Cantankerous Old Tart”

It’s tempting to say that Zoe Mills’s Killing Time, presented in Theater C, the smallest of the three venues at 59E59 Theaters, perfectly matches its title. While it contains the seed of a promising drama, and a sharply crafted performance by the actress/cellist Brigit Forsyth, too many of its 90 minutes do little more than mark time as we wait for it to end. Killing Time, which originated at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Yorkshire, UK, is part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59.

Brigit Forsyth. Photo: Darren Bell.
The locale is the messy flat in which the disheveled, 69-year-old Hester Brooke (Forsyth), a gifted cellist dying of cancer, lives amidst the muck of her lonely life. Surrounding her are cartons into which she’s been sorting her belongings for dispersal after her imminent demise.
Zoe Mills, Brigit Forsyth. Photo: Darren Bell.
In a situation faintly echoing that of The Bigot, now running at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, Hester’s an irritable, verbally salty woman, who calls herself “a cantankerous old tart.” She suffers the painful discomfort of her declining physical condition while rejecting the proffered help of others, preferring to stew in her own self-hatred and disillusion. 

Wearing the same ratty kimono and socks throughout, no matter how many days have passed, Hester kills her pain with infusions of Rioja and pills while rejecting the kindness of her sole, true friend (apart from the cello she calls Freud), George (Robin Herford, authentic), another musician. He, though, is seen only on video via his Skype chats. She so irritates him that, for all his good-heartedness, he clicks off before hearing her attempt to retract something annoying she’s just said. As circumstances will reveal, she’ll never have another chance.

The other person trying to help is Sara (Mills, the playwright, who also happens to be Forsyth’s daughter), in training as an assistant social worker. No matter how firmly and nastily Hester rejects her insistent ministrations (like Jim and Paula in The Bigot), Sara persists, finally working her way into Hester’s life.
Zoe Mills. Photo: Darren Bell.
Like an Angel of Life, she does all in her power to inspire Hester to overcome her suffering by convincing her to take advantage of her musical talents and even videotape her cello talents for posterity. But Sara, a would-be writer, equally lonely and friendless, also has a euthanistic, Angel of Death component to her personality. 
Zoe Mills, Brigit Forsyth, Photo: Darren Bell.
This introduces a vague element of suspense when it comes in contact with Hester’s wish to die, either by suicide or other means. Sara’s preoccupation with death (including a video projection suggesting her own suicidal thoughts) is underlined by her daily taking of selfies, as if recording her life this way will somehow mean, after her death, that she existed. 

Director Antony Eden’s low-key, slow-paced production, too rarely enlivened by humor, does little to ignite our concern. Mill’s episodic play is simply too talky and desultory, large swaths of it little more than Hester’s depressing soliloquies.

Little by little, we learn more about both women, but not enough to create the kind of tension good drama requires. Even the possibility that Sara might kill Hester lacks much interest, given the old lady’s constant harping on her wish to die. “Are you or are you not going to help me put an end to myself,” she asks.

With a few brief exceptions, such as Hester’s suspicion that Sara is after her money, references to the postmortem distribution of Hester’s possessions, or the idea of visiting Thailand, the play favors psychology over drama, with the theme of mortality ever present. An entire scene revolves around a premature obit of Hester that Sara finds online.
Brigit Forsyth. Photo: Darren Bell.
Set, lighting, and AV designer Clancy Flynn has provided a simple visual scheme of a flimsy, white curtain upstage, two plain, angled walls (serving as projection screens) on either side, and a few basic furnishings. The cello music Forsyth plays is from the classical repertory except for her own pleasant composition, “Heartime.” The play imagines it as the result of Sara’s effort to get Hester, who believes her life to have been wasted playing others’ music, to create something new.

If there’s any reason to kill time at Killing Time it’s to see Brigit Forsyth’s believable portrait of a dying artist, unable to appreciate her own talents, and finding peace only through the efforts of another wounded person who sees in her the brilliance she’s been so adamantly dismissing.

59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through May 12