Tennis, Furniture and the Afterlife

Hell Meets Henry Halfway is an ambitious attempt to bring Polish author Witold Gombrowicz's gothic pulp novel Possessed to the stage. Ambitious, as well as unprecedented. As the show's program states, "Pig Iron's version of the text is the first stage adaptation of any of Gombrowicz's novels in the English-speaking world." At the center of this unconventional story is Henry Kolavitski, a much-abused secretary waiting for his sickly patron, the Prince, to pass away so that he can inherit a fortune. Henry calls upon the diseased Dr. Hincz to discern how much longer the Prince has left to live. He also hires a tennis coach to entertain his jaded wife, Maya. Observing this all is Jon the ball boy, a happy-go-lucky simpleton.

Playwright Adriano Shaplin wrote sheer poetry for dialogue, and the actors indulge themselves, questioning, "What did oxygen ever do for me? What kind of favor is gravity?" and posturing, "If sleep is the cousin of death, I want to meet his brother." The language is thick, though the meaning of the words is never obscured, thanks to the actors' direct performances. Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, as tennis coach Marian Walchak, delivers his lines with anger and futility in his voice while Sarah Sanford, as Walchak's student and potential lover Maya, communicates as much with her body language as she does with her voice.

Dan Rothenberg's direction combines with Sarah Sidman's lighting design to create numerous beautiful moments. In the opening scene, Dr. Hincz sits atop a train, his silhouette all that is visible to the audience. The manor's tennis court where the characters scheme and vie for power is lit in sections, resembling a chessboard.

But the true star of the show is a piece of furniture. A versatile armoir serves not only as the set's main piece, but as a brilliant character actor as well, changing from a simple closet to a doorway, a train, a table, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a tree and a gallows pole.

However, armoir aside, the play's greatest strengths serve as its biggest weaknesses. Rothenberg directed his cast with such careful choreography that the first half of the play often feels more like a picturesque slide show than live theatre.

The play also relies too heavily on its own poetry. Although the cast delivers beautiful monologue after beautiful monologue, the first half of the play drags on from a complete lack of action. In fact, Jon the ball boy comments on this during the Act II prologue, telling the audience, "This is when things get serious. No more stalling. No lolly-gaggin' and draggin' your feet."

And Jon is right. From that point on, the play devolves from poetry and silence into sex-fueled, greed-driven, murderous chaos. Though the second act does capture the audience's attention better than the first, it also lacks the eloquence of the first act and the resulting contrast leaves the play feeling uneven.

In spite of these flaws, Pig Iron Theatre Company succeeds in creating a deconstruction of the darker side of human nature. Horrible at times and hilarious at others, Hell Meets Henry Halfway provides a unique and thought-provoking experience. For any theatergoer looking for an entertaining show beyond the ordinary, this production delivers.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post