A ‘Tryst’ that ends with a twist

The usual suspects in an unusual plot

Mark Shanahan and Andrea Maulella star in “Tryst’’ at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Mark Shanahan and Andrea Maulella star in “Tryst’’ at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. (Meghan Moore)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / January 11, 2011

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LOWELL — Merrimack Rep is billing “Tryst’’ as an Edwardian “romantic thriller,’’ which is accurate enough, but also something of an understatement. As brought to life by Joe Brancato (who directed two well-received previous productions, in New York and Houston), Karoline Leach’s drama is a remarkably subtle, carefully faceted character study that just happens to be set in the sepia-tinted past. The situation she examines — a lonely-hearts encounter between a stunted spinster and a predatory grifter — could have been lifted from the page views of

George Love (played by the mercurial Mark Shanahan) sets the framework for the narrative, which continually, seamlessly shifts between action and reminiscence. George is a charmer — professionally so. His game is to single out a suitable female mark (he refers to his quarry with the impersonal “it,’’ as in “I see one, size it up’’). He then initiates a whirlwind romance, culminating in a precipitous marriage and a quick siphoning of its resources.

He summarizes his methodology: “It’s the face you’re looking for. The sort of face that belongs to the sort of woman who teaches piano or serves tea or issues library books. Only that’s not all you’re looking for. You’re looking for the little inconsistency. The little something too expensive, too new, too nice for that face. The something that tells you it’s got a nice little nest egg. A few quid stashed away.’’

Adelaide Pinchin (the perfect name, perfectly portrayed by Andrea Maulella) fits the bill. Though painfully thin (her cheekbones are knifeblades), Adelaide looks presentable enough, so it’s a puzzle why, at the milliner’s shop where she works, she’s forbidden to appear in the showroom and is instead relegated to the back, where she and her fellow hat-trimmers have “all got something wrong with us.’’ Ah, a confidence deficit — the very fissure that George can seize upon.

The holes in his own made-up back story are too glaring to survive the scrutiny of even an unschooled shopgirl, opening up the interesting possibility that Adelaide has an inkling of what she’s getting into when she agrees to run off with him. In any case, the seduction scenario — in a cheap seaside boarding house — does not go down according to plan. Adelaide, while revealing the origins of her woundedness, prompts a comparable outpouring on George’s part, a perhaps unforgivable breach of his public persona.

Once all pretense has been dropped, at Adelaide’s insistence, she proves as able as George to spin a roseate future, and counters with her own giddy vision of their prospective partnership (think Mrs. Lovitt’s “By the Sea,’’ in “Sweeney Todd’’). Who exactly is the mark here? And more to the point, will he go for it?

The upshot seems as inevitable as it is unexpected. If you have any interest in the endless tug-of-war between bad boys and the good women who love them (against their own better judgment), “Tryst’’ is sure to intrigue.

Sandy MacDonald can be reached at sandy@sandymac

TRYST Play by Karoline Leach

Directed by: Joe Brancato. Set, Michael Schweikardt. Lights, Martin E. Vreeland. Costumes, Alejo Vietti. Sound design, Johnna Doty.

At: Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, through Jan. 30. Tickets: $25-56. 978-654-4678,