Most black box theater performances are intimate. The Yale Cabaret performance of “Christie in Love” by Howard Brenton is no exception. Yet audience members may find themselves wanting a little less intimacy with serial killer John Reginald Halliday Christie (Max Roll DRA ’13) and what happens when officers uncover the bodies of six women in his house.
But there is no escape — the perversion of Christie’s murders is explored within feet of audience members, whose seats surround the stage, punctuated by the dark humor of the Constable (Lucas Dixon DRA ’12) and the Inspector (Rob Grant DRA ’13). Paired with the setting, describing this play as “creepy” is an understatement. Director Katie McGerr DRA ’14 creates a Halloween-appropriate atmosphere with at times eerily dim lighting and a garden filled with crumpled newspapers (great for concealing bodies). McGerr said the shift from uncomfortably bright to very dark scenes is intentional. “So much of the play thematically is about this alternation between empathy and abstraction; we wanted to use light to parallel that,” she added.
Perhaps what is most unsettling about “Christie in Love” is the portrayal of Christie as a nervous, seemingly-normal man in a tweed jacket and round glasses. More than physically close, he is theoretically close to the audience as an upstanding member of society — a veteran, no less. Roll’s portrayal of Christie furthers this uncomfortable uncertainty by perfectly balancing the serial killer as both pathetic and monstrous. McGerr said she chose “Christie in Love” because she “was interested in a play that probed the limits of human empathy.” We realize the truth in her assessment when, as Christie cowers beneath the exposed light bulb of the interrogation room — fingers shaking and eyes widening from behind his glasses — we almost feel bad for the murderer.
Dixon and Grant, the Constable-Inspector duo, give the show both humor and humanity. The Constable starts the play tentatively digging through the newspapers, looking for, as he tells the Inspector, “the bones of ladies.” He soon relieves the tension, for both himself and the audience, by telling various dirty limericks. Dixon’s effective timing and realistic portrayal of the Constable’s emotional downward spiral make his performance excellent. In one dreamlike scene, he ‘revives’ the corpse of one of Christie’s victims, a role performed by a floppy doll. He animates her much like a ventriloquist controls his puppet, brutally reenacting her encounter with Christie that led to her demise.
It is the Inspector, who starts the play as the calm authority figure, who exhibits the greatest duality when he becomes enraged during his interrogations of Christie. Grant portrays both sides of his character equally convincingly. The intensity of Grant’s stare as he tells the Constable not to “brood” over the crime is more chillingly frightening than his anger as he fastens a noose around Christie’s neck.
This all amounts to an emotional experience for the audience members. The audience has little choice but to become intimately involved with the Cabaret’s disturbing performance in such close quarters. The acting, directing and setting come together to make a very successful version of the play. This reviewer recommends it but thinks anyone considering attending should know that, despite its title, “Christie in Love” is certainly not a love story.
“Christie in Love” is running at the Yale Cabaret from Oct. 27 through Oct. 29.