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Mulligan a rare light in 'Through a Glass Darkly'

The Associated Press, Monday, June 6, 2011, 6:14pm (PDT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- In the opening scene of "Through a Glass Darkly," Carey Mulligan happily emerges from a refreshing dip in the ocean and declares, "I say that everything will be perfect this holiday."

Don't believe it for a second.

Based on the 1961 Ingmar Bergman film of the same name, "Through a Glass Darkly" is a tightly paced unwinding of a family over 24 hours that is triggered by the only female character's descent into madness.

The 90-minute play, which made its world premiere at the Almeida Theatre in London last summer, opened Monday off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop with a new cast put together by the Atlantic Theater Company.

It's an intense work, but not necessarily fulfilling. Though the performances are superb — especially Mulligan, who charms and snarls and screams as her character Karin falls into the abyss — it can get tedious, as if it were more fun for the actors getting to flex their craft than the audience to watch them.

Many of Bergman's films are spare and thus have been deemed suitable for transition to the stage, despite the master's signature camera work and fondness for close-ups. The four-person "Through a Glass Darkly" fits the pattern, though this adaptation by Jenny Worton begs the question of why the attempt was undertaken. Something muddy has emerged on stage from a deeply psychological film.

One thing very clear is Mulligan, who has emerged as a gifted actress following her screen turn in "An Education" and her Broadway debut in "The Seagull." She is riveting here and pours herself into the role; after a recent performance, she was left shaken and raw. Director David Leveaux has drawn out every ounce of pity from her.

The plot is a simple: A young woman with a history of mental problems goes on vacation on an island off the coast of Sweden with her doctor husband, her 16-year-old brother and her second-rate novelist father.

Signs that Karin's instability has returned — odd comments eventually lead to an admission that she is hearing people calling from beyond the wallpaper — affect the three men very differently.

Her father, a wonderfully pompous Chris Sarandon, is stingy with his affection because he seeks to exploit his daughter's pain for his art. "The sliver of ice in my writer's heart never ceases to surprise me," he admits.

Karin's husband, a delicate turn by Jason Butler Harner, is paralyzed — unable to help the woman he loves and left only to walk on eggshells as he navigates her unpredictability. Karin's brother, Ben Rosenfield, making a solid off-Broadway debut, is preoccupied by his own teenage angst. Everyone is awash in guilt and self-loathing and sexual weirdness.

The single set by Takeshi Kata is split into two parts — an interior and exterior — with some curious touches, including an unnecessary light strip to mark the demarcation between inside and outside, and the clumsy use of a curtain that tumbles when Karin's madness is in full bloom. The colors of everything on stage are a weathered pastel and there's even a sand pile, though why that's apparently sitting indoors is confusing.

To convey madness, lighting designer David Weiner and sound designer David Van Tieghem have delivered with style: The sounds of whispers bubble eerily from speakers when madness approaches and stark spotlights cast everything in either harshness or shadows.

Karin's mental state disintegrates with speed, culminating in a taboo act. Through it all, she bounces between madness and sanity, hearing voices and yet recognizing that healthy people don't hear them. Worst of all, she knows she is causing the others' pain.

"I wonder then, is this because I'm ill? Or is it just because I'm torn between worlds? I see my own confusion ... and it's terrifying," Karin tells her father, in torment.

In the end, a modern-day deus ex machina arrives to take Karin away — a medical helicopter. She leaves drugged and broken, and she leaves behind a broken family, more guilty and ashamed and horrified than when we began. Family get-togethers just can't get any worse.

———

Online:

http://www.atlantictheater.org/glass

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