When writing about love in his 1945 screenplay for “Brief Encounter,” Noel Coward used words such as “violence” and “danger.” We tend to romanticize romance, but as Coward demonstrated in his tale of two already-married strangers who innocently tumble into a relationship, love can disrupt even the most seemingly ordered, picture-perfect lives and threaten to undo all happiness.
The movie, directed by an early-career David Lean, is regularly cited by filmmakers and included in lists of all-time greats. It is also the inspiration for “Arrival & Departure,” a new drama being presented by the Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood.
Although similar to the movie in theme and construct, “Arrival & Departure” is invigoratingly original and of-the-moment. It is also boundlessly enriched by being performed in both spoken English and American Sign Language.
Playwright-director Stephen Sachs, who is hearing, is co-artistic director at the Fountain, where he helped launch L.A.’s Deaf West Theatre in the early ’90s. Several of his previous plays address the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, including 1997’s “Sweet Nothing in My Ear,” later made into a CBS movie.
He wrote “Arrival & Departure” for husband-and-wife actors Troy Kotsur and Deanne Bray, who perform regularly with Deaf West and on television. Kotsur performs in ASL, of which he is a master, his face as powerfully expressive as his hands. Using a hearing aid, Bray speaks as well as signs, delivering a breathtaking, heart-tugging performance. The other six members of the cast are hearing.
Ensuring that no one in the audience misses a word, the piece inventively twines open captioning with signs and spoken words.
Sachs re-imagines the English suburban railway commuters of Coward’s tale as present-day Tri-Staters who meet by chance at a Manhattan subway-concourse doughnut shop. Emily (Bray) is hard-of-hearing; Sam (Kotsur) is fully Deaf.
As they get to know each other, Emily confides that she’s not hard-of-hearing enough to feel part of the deaf community but doesn’t hear well enough to be fully embraced by the hearing world. In intercut scenes that reveal other aspects of her life, we see that neither her hearing husband (Brian Robert Burns) nor daughter (Aurelia Myers) has bothered to learn sign language. With Sam, she feels better understood. Plus, he’s a lot of fun — enthusiastic and opinionated. Although Emily is more watchful, reserved and by-the-book than Sam, she begins to respond to his playful way of insinuating himself into her weekly visits to the city.
The subway doughnut shop is a veritable sugar palace of love, for, as in “Brief Encounter,” a nearby pair are engaged in a contrasting romance. Rather than being united by similarities, the shop’s counter woman (Jessica Jade Andres) and a transit cop (Shon Fuller) are divided by differences. She is Filipino American; he is African American. She’s struggling to extricate herself from an unhappy relationship; he’s all bravado and come-ons, which she mercilessly deflates.
The production’s white-tiled set looks convincingly subway-ish yet is generic enough to facilitate multiple locales. Studded throughout it are video screens that fill with scene-setting images (subway signs, a living room interior, Central Park) and also become the platform on which the open captions appear. (The set design is by Matthew G. Hill; video and open captioning by Nicholas E. Santiago.)
For deaf and hard-of-hearing people to communicate, they must intently look at each other — seeing the whole individual and reading all of the cues being sent. Wouldn’t that would be a fine practice in all relationships?
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‘Arrival & Departure’
Where: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., East Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Sept. 30
Tickets: $20-$40, Mondays pay what you can
Info: (323) 663-1525, fountaintheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes