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Hats Off

Dark and lonely, a cobblestone road glimmers under the gloomy glow of Victorian gaslights, which hang like fallen stars. Steam hisses up from the grating in the street. This is a lost world, glistening in the damp night with all the romance and danger of history. We are in London. The year is 1910. And anything could happen. It's a skin-prickling opening rich with theatrical intrigue. And the Alley Theatre's riveting production of Karoline Leach's psychological thriller Tryst delivers everything these first images promise -- and more.

Leach's writing is smart, funny and disturbingly profound in its psychological complexities. The central story line -- about a conman who romances spinsters for money -- is as old as love. But the twists and turns Leach brings to this plot make it so much deeper than that.

Beautifully blond, the deliciously named George Love (Mark Shanahan) begins the evening by telling the audience all about how he steals money from women. With a nervous, almost compulsively muscular energy, he rattles on about how he chooses his prey, how he circles in for the kill and how he makes himself feel better about his bad behavior (he thinks of himself as quite the lover!). And Adelaide Pinchin (Andrea Maulella), the plain hatmaker who always stays in the back of the store except for one fateful day when she meets George on the showroom floor, weaves her own experience into his narrative. She can't believe that gorgeously charming George is interested in her. He invites her for lunch. He charms her with his stories of travel and international experiences. He speaks French!

Info

Tryst

The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

Through December 10. $45-$49.

They quickly become involved. He asks her to marry him. She trembles in his gaze. Up until this point, the story is fairly standard fare. The Victorian period, with Alejo Vietti's costumes and the English accents, makes all of this lovely, but nothing is deeply surprising...yet. It's toward the end of Act I and throughout Act II that Leach turns what could be an ordinary tale into an extraordinary night of heart-gripping theater. Full of the cruelest ironies, complicated and heart-wrenching suspense and truly shocking surprises, the story finds its way into the darkest corners of the human heart, leaving the audience to ponder such profound questions as what it means to trust someone and whether it's possible to see into the secret places of the people we love.

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Of course, as exciting as this story becomes, the power of the Alley's production comes from its small but fiery two-person cast. Shanahan is haunting as Love, a mysterious, erotic dream of a man. He is passionate in every move -- his hands grip the world with white knuckles, and even as he weeps, his hips grind the air. Shanahan's Love reads women with the blade of his slicing intuition, ready to cut up whatever gets in his way. He is the worst sort of addiction.

Maulella makes a stellar Adelaide Pinchin -- smart, controlled and also passionate, moving with a broken grace. Plain-clothed and forever looking down, her lower lip stuck out in rueful inner rage at the sorry state of her own life, at the terrible inequities of it all, she ultimately proves to be much more than what George initially imagines. And Maulella moves so slowly, and with such precision, through Adelaide's metamorphosis that it feels completely organic in the end.

Holding all these complexities together is Joe Brancato's stunning direction. He has created a night of theater that's both beautiful to look at and impeccably paced. Sexually charged, intellectually complicated and emotionally thrilling, the production is the best theater can offer. There's something wonderfully alive and deeply human in this story, and this powerhouse production team has pulled it off the page with erotic grace, intelligence and a beating and bloody heart.

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