Alan Hruska’s Ring Twice for Miranda, at City Center Stage II, is not the only recent play that features a dystopian society—it joins last year’s Mercury Fur (by Philip Ridley); Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone, recently at BAM; and Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House, playing at the Signature Theatre Center. Unlike those, however, it has startling echoes of—or perhaps pays homage to—European plays from the middle part of the last century—particularly ones by Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett and Jean Giraudoux.
The bulk of the play takes place within a mansion sealed from the outside world, more or less. In the basement quarters, sitting by a formidable set of bells that summon servants to each room in the house, are a maid and butler, the titular Miranda (Katie Kleiger) and Elliot (George Merrick), who are sometime sexual partners.
Elliot, who is smitten with Miranda, is fretful that, without any work, he will soon be turned out of doors. He also agonizes over Miranda’s time with Sir, their master, suspecting her strongly of sexual betrayal.
Their immediate overseer is Daniel Pearce’s abrupt, bullying Gulliver, whom they don’t trust. Although both servants are worried about their job security, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s not for the usual reasons. Expulsion from the safety of the house is a fearful prospect. The outside world is in some kind of apocalyptic turmoil, and director Rick Lombardo adeptly ratchets up the tension as the scenes progress.
For all Gulliver’s power, he is himself an intermediary between Miranda and Sir, the master not only of the house but of vast wealth as well. Yet Sir has taken a liking to Miranda, and when Gulliver dismisses Elliot, she tries to persuade Sir to keep Elliot on, even though there is no work in the house to justify it.
In the master/servant relationship here and in the power of wealth—Graeme Malcolm is a tall, unyielding Sir with a formidable scowl—there are echoes of The Maids, or Lucky and Pozzo in Waiting for Godot, or perhaps the incredibly wealthy and merciless Claire Zachanassian in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit.
In fact, after Sir’s peremptory refusal to countermand Gulliver’s firing of Elliot, Miranda does throw in her lot with him and leave. Only blocks away, they discover deserted streets and graffiti-plagued walls. Both actors, helped by Jason Sherwood’s scenic design, convey the unsettling danger of the world in the small space, as they bicker, Hruska’s dialogue bears a striking resemblance to Beckett:
Elliot: A car will come along.
Miranda: I acknowledge the possibility. Now you acknowledge the opposite.
Elliot: What good would that do?
Miranda: Facing reality.
Yet they suddenly encounter another desperate could, Chester and Anouk (William Connell and Talia Thiesfield), who are in dire need of gas for their fancy sports car. They are trying to go north, assuming that most people are heading south to avoid winter—both couples have determined that too many people heading in that direction will be clogging the escape routes.
Luckily for the hapless Elliot, Katie Kleiger’s Miranda is one step ahead of them, and she manages to call their bluff, though it doesn’t get her or Elliot off the street. Hruska, however, has a knack for keeping the tension and the surprises coming—including a plumber named Felix who turns up unexpectedly and, in Ian Lassiter’s riveting portrayal, exudes danger and warns of “scavengers.”
“They’re waiting on the bridges,” he cautions. “For people with luggage.”
“And the tunnels?” asks Elliot.
“I wouldn’t consider those, no,” Felix responds ominously.
Hruska is a skillful plotter, setting up Elliot and Miranda against Gulliver and Sir, then introducing Anouk and Chester as foils, and finally, Felix, whose function one may suspect before it is revealed. He manages to get all the characters back to the house, where Elliot and Miranda come face to face with Chester and Anouk again. As Miranda hears her bell—it’s two rings, vs. Elliott’s three, as the title states—she attends to Sir’s needs, and his attraction for her becomes apparent in an offbeat comic sequence. (It’s not sex.)
Still, the dystopian setting is beginning to feel stale, and if Hruska is making an important philosophical point, it isn’t as clear as those of his European models. The actors are all very good, and there are dramatic pleasures in Ring Twice for Miranda, but they don’t amount to more than a thoroughly capable sci-fi yarn.
Ring Twice for Miranda plays through April 16 at City Center Stage II (131 W. 55th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call (212) 581-1212 or visit ringtwiceformiranda.com.