Last winter, fortunate theatergoers fell madly, hopelessly in love with "Brief Encounter," the enchanting British spin on the Noel Coward movie that had a limited sold-out run at the adventurous little St. Ann's Warehouse under the Brooklyn Bridge.
As it turns out, our brief affair was not hopeless after all. The Roundabout Theatre Company has swept up the ingenious import and put it on Broadway in the oversized - but not disastrously huge - Studio 54. I miss the intimacy, the sense of being surrounded and carried away by the delicate production's deeply romantic - yet witty and playful - version of the beloved adultery-weeper that David Lean directed from Coward's 1938 play, "Still Life," in 1945.
Even in the wrong theater, the magic survives. Part cabaret, part multimedia cinematic invention, this is not yet another tracing-paper theater rip-off of a movie. And, although there are songs, this is not another of Broadway's musical adaptations that trade on a movie brand without a clue about the unique possibilities of live theater.
Instead, director Emma Rice and an intriguing collective from Cornwall called the Kneehigh Theatre have created a peculiar living-movie experience in which characters sit with us in the theater, hang from chandeliers to communicate the bubbly wonder of a first Champagne lunch and walk through black-and-white film as if they're in "Purple Rose of Cairo."
Hannah Yelland is both impeccably proper and radiant as Laura, married suburban mother who meets Alec, an idealistic married doctor (the dashingly sympathetic Tristan Sturrock), weekly in a train station. Eight other versatile actor-musicians contrast the couple's almost unbearable yearning with larky working-class courtships in the station's tearoom. There is also a band that wears the uniforms of '30s train conductors and plays cleverly selected Coward favorites on banjos, a string bass, a trumpet and a ukulele - and offers a friendly concert after the show.
I can understand how some might find this all too gimmicky, too precious for a restrained classic. Instead of being outrageously undignified, however, these styles clash in droll, often poignant counterpoint. People blow sideways from the force of passing trains and, when the lovers are literally swept off their feet, someone is there to catch them. Lovely.
WHAT "Brief Encounter"
WHERE Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.
INFO $37-$127; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org