I guessed correctly that the grunting German officer was faking his incomprehension when the indiscreet Englishwoman began to mock him. I didn’t mind the obviousness of it.
Playwright Moira Buffini employs several cheap plot tricks in “Gabriel,” now in its premiere at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company. Still, it’s as absorbing a drama as any I’ve seen recently, proving that Noel Coward’s comment about the extraordinary power of cheap music to move us also holds true in the theater.
The play is set on the island of Guernsey in 1943. Winston Churchill has ceded the Channel Islands to the Germans, who have built bunkers and taken over the best estates, sending their occupants to lesser quarters (and the even less fortunate to forced-labor camps). One such family is that of Jeanne Becquet, a widow now living in a farmhouse with her 10-year-old daughter, Estelle, and Lily, her missing son’s wife and a Jewess.
Jeanne’s survival plan is to seduce Von Plunz, the latest top officer, as she had his predecessor, even though he’s on to her. Lily, meanwhile, insists on rescuing a beautiful young man who has washed up, naked, on the shore and turns out to be amnesiac and impeccably fluent in English.
A double cat-and-mouse game ensues. Estelle, a precocious girl with a mystical bent, names the blond stranger Gabriel. Who is he? Is Gabriel one of Us -- or one of Them? And will Von Plunz indulge in the illusion of an affair even as the Becquets plot against him?
If this is melodrama, a 1940s B movie with a touch of noir, it’s melodrama of a rare order. Buffini, little known on these shores, has an arsenal of zingers, plot twists and surprises as Von Plunz turns out to be not only smart, but cursed with a poet’s soul and a good memory.
“As a young man in Munich, I spent many a happy evening curled up by the fireside with my ‘Treasury of English Verse,’” he tells Jeanne. “So many fine men. Such delicate misery. I have always felt a kindred spirit.”
In a movie, that line might be spoken by a suavely depressed Leslie Howard type. Here, Von Plunz is played by Zach Grenier, a rough-hewn fireplug of an actor who conveys menace and poignant vulnerability. Lisa Emery is his match as the determined Jeanne.
They’re well-supported by Samantha Soule as Lily, her dark eyes wide with fear and longing; Lee Aaron Rosen as the ideal -- whether German or British -- male driftwood; Libby Woodbridge as the pushy Estelle and Patricia Conolly as the practical housekeeper.
Riccardo Hernandez designed the dizzyingly raked set, which doubles as a sitting room and upstairs bedroom and is artfully lit by Scott Zielinski. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are period-perfect.
The whole thing might have fallen apart without David Esbjornson’s confident, cocksure pacing. The show unfolds as a series of secrets revealed like cards on a poker table. In the end I wasn’t certain who won, but I loved being a good spectator.
At 336 W. 20th St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://www.atlantictheater.org Rating: ***
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)