Sam Henderson’s clever and sometimes cryptic play “The Brownings” is a look at your typical 19th-century dysfunctional family of literary stars. Or maybe it’s a boxing match: “In this corner the hyper-talented poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning! In this corner, the less effective poet and ineffective playwright Robert Browning!” Or maybe it’s a simple display of raw emotions and gross talk, or an exploration of repetitive behavior patterns between an alpha-female and the deeply insecure male she mauls for sport.
Or maybe it’s a portrait of love.
I suspect it’s all of the above. But if you see “The Brownings,” now in a smooth world premiere from the Orbiter 3 stage company, best not to think too deeply. It is what it is — a playwright’s invention that sucks the basic truths about two real figures into a time warp and a mental one, too. (Here’s what it is not: A play that depicts what the playwright maintains, maybe joshingly, in a sealed note on every chair that’s not to be read until after the play. I won’t tell you what’s in the note. But nothing in the play’s florid text supports it.)
In the play, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, Robert, spend their days in Italy — where she’s recovering from a bunch of irreversible ailments and taking a constant swig of the drug laudanum to help — sitting in their flat and writing verse. She dashes it off, and it’s brilliant. He struggles with his, and it’s never as sparkling. They ask each other for comment. He never gets the comment he wants. Then it’s off to the races.
Add to that the occasional visit by the mentally ill composer Robert Schumann — who in real life, probably never set foot near the Brownings — and you’ve got the entire ensemble of characters in Henderson’s play. They clearly live in the 19th century and speak in the 21st — especially Elizabeth. “Get a pair!” she barks to her husband when she thinks he reacts weakly to her. And much worse.
The 80-minute one-act comes off like an intellectual depiction of a Punch-and-Judy show, while Schumann sits at a piano off to the side and plays the emcee. He’s a lounge lizard long before there were lounges to employ them. Played coyly by the versatile theater artist James Ijames, who telegraphs every thought about the bizarre couple whose scenes he introduces, this classical composer sometimes interrupts the action with oddball asides.
The whole thing is both funny and familiar, too, if you know anything about the gives-and-takes of couples. In the hands of two highly experienced actors who know precisely how to bring it off — Charlotte Northeast and David Ingram — it seems uncannily real. That’s also an achievement of the accomplished director Harriet Power, who takes a wild invention and interprets it as plausible and even touching.
Henderson’s play is a part of the third and final season for Orbiter 3, a collective of local playwrights presenting world premieres of their work. This group has been so successful — the quality of the plays and their productions, so high— that I wish they’d forget about their three-year ceiling and just keep going. For this production, Orbiter 3 uses a wing to the side of the stage at FringeArts, not the usual place for a show or an audience. This puts us off to the edge, an appropriate place for an unusual play skirting the edges of reality.
“The Brownings,” produced by Orbiter 3, runs through Dec. 9 at FringeArts, Race Street and Columbus Boulevard. 215-413-1318 or orbiter3.org.