Sam Henderson’s The Brownings — the sixth world-premiere production from playwriting collective Orbiter 3 — offers a rollicking, occasionally funny, frequently heavy-handed portrait of one of poetry’s greatest and most troubled couples. Although a shell of truth surrounds his conception of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s difficult married life in Italy, Henderson uses the pair to explore a battery of universal themes, including addiction, mental illness, toxic romance, artistic rivalry, and codependency.
Henderson flirts with these weighty issues, and occasionally mines a moment of emotional clarity to devastating effect. But more often, he takes the path of least resistance straight into a cheap laugh. The Brownings longs to be profound but settles for merely clever.
One needn’t be well-versed in the lives of the historical Brownings to find their way into Henderson’s world. Robert (David Ingram) and Elizabeth (Charlotte Northeast) act as avatars more than flesh-and-blood people, and I sensed that virtually any literary couple could stand in for them, and for the composer Robert Schumann (James Ijames, brimming with impish charm), who tickles the ivories like a 19th-century lounge lizard. Had Henderson picked up Ariel instead of Sonnets for the Portuguese, we might be watching a play about Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Benjamin Britten.
Still, Robert and Elizabeth offer fairly fertile ground for dramatic exploration. After a lifetime of ill health, Elizabeth spent her final years hopelessly addicted to laudanum, which she called “my amreeta draught, my elixir.” Compared to his wife, Robert found his talent inadequate; he largely stopped writing during their marriage.
Northeast seizes on this, turning Elizabeth into a swaggering bully who taunts her husband for his lack of ability. In one of the play’s best scenes, Elizabeth challenges Robert to a “sonnet-off”; the result is both hilarious and heartbreaking, as Robert crumbles up his middling verse, aware he will never match his wife’s talent.
For better, for worse
But Robert excelled as a caregiver, and some of the drama’s most genuinely moving moments come when we see him nurture Elizabeth through her difficult final years. (She died in 1861, at 55; Robert outlived her by nearly 30 years.) Ingram and Northeast bring a quiet sadness to Elizabeth’s death scene, punctuated by her gently whispered refrain, “I’m tired.” After experiencing the high-octane version of this couple, the tonal shift feels truly unsettling in a satisfying way.
Despite these contained moments of brilliance — and Harriet Power’s assured, detail-oriented direction — The Brownings never quite coalesces. Henderson introduces his themes pell-mell, and the play’s short scenes often highlight how little substance underpins the witty dialogue and gratuitous use of anachronistic profanity.
After about the fifth potentially interesting subject — perhaps Schumann’s assertion that only music can be the true Weltsprache, or universal language — was glossed in favor of some tongue-in-cheek quip, I felt like I was watching second-rate sketch comedy. Everything acted as a setup for the lady in the funny dress to say “fuck” a lot.
It’s funny, sure. And Henderson has undeniable talent. But, to employ the play’s vernacular, what the fuck is the point?