The empty picture frames that hover in the background of the Washington Stage Guild’s “Tryst” seem ever more apt as this suspense drama unspools. For starters, George Love, the con-man character who sets the tale in motion, sees swindling as an art form. He may, in fact, be the son of a portrait painter. And as he busies himself with wooing and defrauding the spinsters of 1912 England, glances — appraising, covetous and as measured as snapshots — are among the tools of his trade.
Hanging in the air, or propped against walls, in some cases serving as shelves for such domestic items as a teapot, the frames pack a particular thematic punch at the start of this absorbing but often stiff production, directed by Kasi Campbell. (Jie Yu gets credit for the scenic design.) As a flashbulb goes off, George (Felipe Cabezas) stands inside the largest picture frame, posing formally with a woman in a demure blue Edwardian dress. This is Adelaide Pinchin (Emily Townley), the shy milliner whom George has chosen as his latest victim. But as dramatist Karoline Leach’s script gradually makes clear while spiraling toward a shocker ending, Adelaide may be more canny and less vulnerable than she appears.
Told in intimate two-actor scenes that alternate with speeches in which the characters address the audience directly, “Tryst” highlights George’s creepy arrogance from the get-go. His seduction of an unsuspecting woman is “a surgical operation,” he brags to us in the show’s early moments after observing that his suits are made by the same tailor who serves the Duke of Marlborough. (Kirk Kristlibas created the convincing period costumes, including George’s pinstripe suit, flashy silver vest and bowler hat.)
George is an intriguing fellow — Leach based him on a real figure who caused a sensation in early-20th-century England — but at least on opening weekend, Cabezas didn’t seem wholly at home in the character. His delivery of George’s direct address, in particular, was sometimes flat and stilted, as if the actor hadn’t quite become acclimated to the Edwardian era or to George’s flair for debonair bluster. The air of awkwardness lessens as the production proceeds, and Cabezas more confidently brings the character’s darker currents to the fore. In one powerfully unnerving sequence late in Act I, George looks out at the audience with an arch smile: A few seconds pass, and the smile drains away, replaced by an expression of grim intensity.
Townley does a more sustainedly artful job with Adelaide, suggesting layers of desperation, self-consciousness, desire, disappointment and hope through small gestures — a manner of decorously wringing her hands, for instance — or vocal subtleties, like the hint of a shriek that splinters into her protest when George retracts an invitation to lunch. The nuanced characterization helps keep the play’s mystery quotient simmering, while at the same time indicating a robust psychological basis for the story’s twists and turns.
A success in London’s West End in 1997, “Tryst” has had two runs in New York but had never been produced in the D.C. area until now, according to the Washington Stage Guild. Even the brittleness that sometimes mars this production can’t disguise the fact that Leach’s script is a smart, sturdy piece of entertainment. A nice middlebrow diversion, especially suited to “Masterpiece Theatre” fans, Dorothy L. Sayers aficionados and other Anglophiles — but you wouldn’t want to take it home and frame it.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Karoline Leach. Directed by Kasi Campbell; lighting, Marianne Meadows; sound, Thomas Sowers. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Through Jan. 27 at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Call 240-582-0050 or visit www.stageguild.org.