Charlie’s Waiting, a new dark comedy by Mêlisa Annis, demonstrates its young author’s flair for weaving comedy and drama together, as well as a wicked imagination. The “what if” behind the plot creates tension that is palpable.
Annis’s play opens in an English country residence, designed by Meganne George with a sparse, clean, white interior. Ludovica Villar-Hauser’s stylish direction utilizes it as a blank canvas on which to paint a picture of domestic bliss, yet Annis tells a story of characters whose lives are messy with deceit and lies.
It’s the night before the wedding of Kelly (Stephanie Heitman) to the pregnant and proud homeowner, Louise (perceptively played by Xanthe Elbrick), who is busy multitasking, juggling her phone, several lists, and the smart-home remote, when the doorbell rings. When Louise returns, it’s with Annie (Amy Scanlon), an unexpected visitor. They do not know each other, and so they wait for Kelly to return from feeding the neighbor’s goats.
The dynamic between the two women is tense: overtly polite and distinctly awkward. As Louise, in full tour-guide mode, describes in detail the wonders of the barn conversion, the contrast between them is striking. Annie is a rock-solid, working-class daughter of a boarding school caretaker, where she and Kelly were roommates, which Louise is staggered to learn. While Elbrick’s Louise hyperventilates in defense of the trappings of her territory—her ego, her privileged background—it seems her relationship to Kelly is built on her infatuation with the idea of Kelly. As Annie talks about her long-term friendship with Kelly, it becomes evident that Louise knows less about Kelly than she realized.
Kelly is not returning anytime soon, and Annie declares that she has to go, but before she does, she drops a bombshell: she can no longer care for Kelly’s son, Charlie. She has fallen in love with an Albanian man and is moving to Albania with him. Handing Louise a set of car keys, Annie tells Louise that Charlie is “sitting in a car at the end of the field.”
Louise: You left a child in the car this whole time?
Annie: I was really hoping to see Kelly.
Louise: You can’t do this—
Annie: I don’t have a choice. I have to seize the moment.
Louise: I have over a hundred guests coming tomorrow—
Annie: I know that my timing is off—
Louise: You can’t do this to me.
Annie: I’m not trying to do anything to you, I just want to return Charlie to his mother.
The implications of the news run amok in Louise’s head while she frantically dresses in her wax jacket and Wellington boots, then undresses, panicking, holding onto her pregnant belly for dear life, and uncertain what to do next.
When Kelly returns, Louise is unable to tell her about Annie’s visit or about Charlie, who is still waiting, so the secret remains the elephant in the room. The questions Louise’s pregnancy raises are brushed over almost entirely in favor of the silent wall of tension mounting about Kelly’s past. And there are more than biological clocks ticking. Just how long can a little boy be left waiting in a car in a field before it crosses the line into the unsavory world of child neglect?
Against the clock, it is impressive to watch the tension build between the lovers. As it does, you can practically hear the foundations of their relationship begin to crack, while the stains of the past muddy the pure white surfaces.
The first part of Charlie’s Waiting flows, punctuated by well-balanced characters; excellent comedic scripting and timing; and curious and clever attention to detail, like how the base of the north side of the house was “originally constructed using stones from Hadrian’s Wall,” and how, Louise continues, “over the years peasants took pieces of Hadrian’s Wall and used the stones to build their own structures. You can find bits of the wall all over this part of the country—you see it in the houses, the village pubs, even in the churches—you just have to know what to look for.” It’s an interesting parallel: Louise is obsessed with hidden pieces of an ancient wall, but is blinded by the writing on the wall of her personal life.
The second part depends heavily on the actors’ abilities to act through the silence and the weight of the thing that is not being talked about, which is difficult to sustain. Cliffhanger endings are challenging, and this one may leave you feeling manipulated into caring about the characters but dissatisfied at not being privy to what happens next.
Charlie’s Waiting runs through April 20 at TheaterLab (357 West 36th St.). Performances are weekdays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 7.30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets may be purchased by visiting theaterlabnyc.com.