My Brilliant Divorce, a one-woman show by Geraldine Aron, has had long and successful runs around the world, especially in London’s West End, where it was nominated for an Olivier. Now it is making its United States premiere at Bay Street Theatre, where it will run through June 24. Polly Draper, best known for her role on the TV series “thirtysomething,” plays Angela, a middle-aged woman who is blindsided by her husband’s sudden decision to leave her. The play is set in England, although in this production Angela is an American.
As the title would suggest, My Brilliant Divorce approaches the subject of marital dissolution with sarcasm and wit, as we follow Angela through four years of ups and downs: jealous rage over her husband’s infidelity (it turns out her daughter knew about it), calls to a suicide hotline, pathetic attempts to find romance through personal columns, visits to the doctor for imagined illnesses. All of these potentially clichéd materials are skewed by Angela’s particular loopiness—she seldom reacts in the ways you might expect. Even the heavy subject of suicide feels less heavy when Angela seems more intent on flirting with the hotline counselor than doing any violence to herself. She jokes about her ex-husband’s inadequacies; she imitates the accent of her immigrant cleaning woman, and makes an embarrassing (but ultimately satisfying) trip to an “adult toy store.”
In fact, even though Bay Street’s elegant turntable stage set provides a convincing backdrop for the various changes of scene, My Brilliant Divorce resembles nothing so much as an elongated stand-up routine. Indeed, from a brief online investigation it would appear that the role of Angela is frequently undertaken by a stand-up comic, which makes sense. It is the comic’s stock-in-trade, after all, to take on a familiar subject (like divorce) and put a surprising spin on it, confessing embarrassing personal foibles to the audience, doing funny accents, dwelling on anatomical disappointments, striking funny poses and mugging for the crowd. In the right hands, this kind of stuff can “kill,” as they say.
Polly Draper is a brilliant actress, and she takes the show in some interesting directions. She’s not going just for laughs, but she sometimes reveals the serious heart of the story, the tragedy of a broken relationship and the despair of loneliness. This allows her to create an emotional narrative, of being lost and then found, that feels real. The audience feels invested in her struggle to reconnect to the world and to be loved again.
Draper is not, however, a stand-up comic by training, and her handling of the broad humor that pervades the show sometimes feels tentative and awkward. She has a somewhat delicate voice (on Saturday night she also appeared to have a cold, which couldn’t have helped) that inhibits her ability to do the vocal characterizations of the loudmouth comic creations in Aron’s script. She commands the stage with the thoughtfulness of the trained actress, not the careless swagger of the vaudevillian. But this is over-the-top writing, and it really seems to beg for a no-holds-barred approach.
The old line goes that England and the U.S. are two countries that are separated by a common language. As a transfer from England, My Brilliant Divorce has been changed in important ways—the main character has become an American expatriate, she obviously speaks differently than originally conceived, lines about the differences between American and British divorce have been added. Confusions about nationalities abound in the show. For example, never explained is why Angela’s mother, presumably American, is an Irish-accented woman living in Ireland? Despite being an English-language play from an English-speaking country, I suspect that many aspects of My Brilliant Divorce have been lost in translation.
My Brilliant Divorce at Bay Street Theatre, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor through June 24, 2012. 631-725-9500, www.baystreet.org.