What won’t a New Yorker stomach for a killer deal on a Victorian brownstone? Dry rot and wet rot? No problem. An infestation of deathwatch beetle? Fine. Skeleton of wayward governess lodged beneath the parlor floor? Sure thing. In Kate Atkinson’s cluttered play Abandonment, historian Elizabeth’s new home boasts some unexpected period details.
Atkinson, a Whitbread Award-winning British novelist, has made her name writing sprawling, largehearted family comedies with hints of the supernatural. Her latest book, Case Histories, preferred the foibles and squabbles of two middle-aged sisters to the unraveling of its multiple crime stories. Her novelistic tics—eccentric characters, access to the otherwordly, plots as overstuffed as Edwardian armchairs—are alive (if not entirely well) in her drama.
A play is, for better or worse, not a novel and typically lacks a book’s generous length, its recourse to an authorial voice, and its reliance on reader imagination. Consequently, what might have made an excellent read is a decidedly so-so watch. The dramatis personae seem mere collections of quirks and witticisms, while the ghost story elements come off as hokey in the extreme. (The latter problem is largely due to director Kit Thacker, who insists on not only a scrim and violent red lighting, but also heartbeat sound effects and slow-motion stabbing.)
The play flits back and forth from the present day, as single Elizabeth (Ali Marsh) settles into her new abode, to the New York of 100-odd years ago, when governess Agnes (Veronica Cruz) begins an ill-conceived affair with her employer. Except for Marsh and Cruz, all the actors play double roles, rather unconvincingly. Though Thacker has ostensibly adapted the original from a London setting to a New York one, he hasn’t let the cast know. Most of the performers believe that Manhattanites of the 1890s spoke British English. Even for Atkinson, that’s a quirk too far.