What private thoughts and information are we obligated to share with friends, family, and spouses? A nd how does loyalty and transparency enter into the equation?
Those questions and more are raised in Ronan Noone’s “Scenes from an Adultery,” the final production of New Repertory Theatre’s 30th anniversary season, playing through May 17. This marks Ronan’s second world premiere in the past five months, coming on the heels of “The Second Girl” at the Huntington.
“Scenes from an Adultery” is described as a bawdy drawing room comedy of manners, miscommunication, and miscalculations that test the boundaries of true love and friendship.
In the play, best friends Tony and Gasper meet up at a local pub in Britain. Gasper spills the news to Tony that a mutual friend might be having an affair. Should they tell their friend what he saw? Tony’s wife Lisa is caught up in it but doesn’t know. Should they tell her? Should they tell anyone? Tony says it’s none of their business and wants to forget it ever happened. Naturally, chaos erupts.
Noone has spent this past theater season as a Next Voices Playwriting Fellow at New Rep, developing “Scenes” through a variety of readings and workshops culminating with the world premiere.
The New Rep production is being directed by the theater’s associate artistic director, Bridget Kathleen O’Leary. She and Noone, who emigrated from Clifden, Ireland, in 1994, first crossed paths when she selected one of his plays to present during the 2009 Boston Theater Marathon.
When she read “Scenes,” she loved it because “I thought, God, nobody really writes broad comedy anymore. Very smart comedy is very hard to write and I think [Ronan] really nailed it with this.”
Noone says that “Scenes” initially stemmed from a desire to explore new themes. “I was looking at Noel Coward and a lot of those plays that have to do with marriage and relationships. I wanted to look at marriage and relationships from that point of view.”
Because “The Second Girl” originated out of the Irish immigrant experience, Noone was eager to explore other avenues. “I wanted to write a play that wasn’t in that world, necessarily. I sometimes feel I might just get typecast as the ‘go-to’ Irish immigrant guy. I wanted to be the ‘go-to’ let’s-have a-look-at-people’s-souls guy, wherever they may be from. So ‘Scenes from an Adultery’ came from that.”
His jumping-off point for the plot can be traced to a seemingly innocent encounter he had with some friends, one of whom was smoking a cigarette. The friend’s wife wasn’t aware he smoked. When she found out, Noone said, “she castigated him for it, and then us as well, for not having told her. We suddenly became involved in the betrayal.”
That, in turn, sparked the idea, said Noone, of “what would happen to another person’s marriage if they had heard that some of their best friends may have committed adultery. Would you tell? How far do you go? It became a question of truth.”
O’Leary, who received her MFA in directing at Boston University, believes the play is “about how vulnerable and susceptible we are to other people’s lives . . . I think the play is at its best, at its most fruitful, when we’re talking about how we communicate. Who knows what? And how what we know influences decisions we make.”
She said many people assume a certain status and expectation within a relationship. “This is not so much about how the world knows us . . . it’s about what we choose to offer to our friends and our spouses or our lovers. It’s the expectation that if you are in a friendship you will have access to everything about your friend . . . It’s the expectation that the other person in that relationship is going to share everything with you.”
She carried the thought one step further, questioning, “What does it mean when you find out that your friend (or your spouse or your lover) didn’t share something with you? You start to wonder why? . . . Why are you keeping this from me? What are the implications of not sharing a part of oneself with someone who has that expectation?”
Interestingly, Noone had initially set the story in America. However, when working with the cast, he and O’Leary and New Rep Artistic Director Jim Petosa discovered an additional dimension in the piece, almost by accident.
Cast members Ciaran Crawford (from Ramelton, County Donegal), Peter Stray (from Swansea, Wales) and Leda Uberbacher (from Edinburgh, Scotland) had all been using American accents as they developed their characters.
However, when the creative team asked Uberbacher to speak in her own voice, everything suddenly changed. “She was actually the reason the play shifted (to the UK),” O’Leary said. “It was the minute she dropped the accent. Suddenly there was something about the syntax and the rhythm of the play that unlocked for everyone.” The level of humor was kicked up significantly by moving the story to England.
O’Leary has such a strongly rooted Irish name that it was inevitable to ask about her own heritage. She explained that when she was growing up, life in the O’Leary household was punctuated with Irish symbols, boiled dinners, and more. She was raised to be extremely proud of who she was. Such that from the time she was just learning to speak, her father instructed the tiny girl to introduce herself emphatically as “Bridget Kathleen O’Leary! I’m Irish!”
That pride triggered a funny experience much later during her college days. “I had a roommate who was from Germany,” she said. “I remember the only fight we ever had came after a few beers when she said, ‘You know, it’s ridiculous that when you ask an American where they’re from, they tell you, I’m Irish, I’m French . . . She said, ‘You’re American.’ And I said (laughing) ‘The hell I am! I’m Irish!”
R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.
“Scenes From An Adultery,” through May 17 at New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown. Info: 617-923-8487 or newrep.org.