Embers serves frozen revenge at the Guthrie

Shattered by a 40-year-old memory: James A. Stephens as Henrik
Heidi Bohnenkamp

There's revenge served cold, and then there's revenge served cryogenically preserved, as frozen as the depths of outer space but as sharp and clear as a sunny day.

In Embers, Christopher Hampton's adaptation of Sandor Marai's World-War-II-era novel, two men who were inseparable friends for more than two decades meet after 41 years apart. The mystery of what caused the estrangement is played out in this often taut drama, centering on a solid performance from James A. Stephens as the aggrieved and supported by Nathaniel Fuller and Barbara Bryne in smaller but still vital roles.

Stephens plays Henrik, a retired military officer who resides in an isolated family castle in Hungary. We open on him nervously wandering around a drawing room, his old uniform perfectly preserved in one corner and two picture frames hanging prominently in another. Only one frame is filled, however. The reason for the empty one will unfold over the course of the evening.

Henrik's nerves are understandable, as Konrad has returned after four decades away. Even before the other character shows his face, Henrik can feel his presence — especially as he fiddles with a pistol before pointing it offstage as the other man arrives at the castle.

Danger is in the air from the moment the two reunite, with little small talk between former best friends. Of course, four decades can craft plenty of changes, but it feels as if Henrik has been preserved from that day all those years ago. He does little to hide his contempt for the other man, who has spent the years in the "tropics" before returning to Europe for a comfortable, if lonely, existence.

Fuller gives us a smooth character who keeps his true motives close to his well-tailored vest throughout the show, even as he is confronted by fact after fact from the increasingly incensed Henrik, who treats the dinner like a battlefield interrogation. It's not just Konrad's actions on that day that are in question. Henrik wants to get to the bottom of the man who loves music and art but found himself studying at a military school and spending the first part of his adult life in the army.

Saying exactly what happened would give away the game, but it is clear from early on that it concerns Krisztina, Henrik's wife and a longtime friend of both. Something, clearly, has shattered each of the characters: Konrad gone, Krisztina dead at a young age, and Henrik alone with crystal-clear memories.

In the end, it almost all falls on the back of Stephens, who works the in-the-round staging like a caged tiger, ready to pounce on Fuller's character at any turn, but also unable to take the final step against his former best friend. Director Joe Dowling always keeps the pair apart, with the only contact coming between Henrik and his former wet nurse, Nini (Bryne). It's a performance — and a character — that peels back layer by layer to reveal a character not just frozen solid four decades in the past but ossified to the point of immobility.

2 Sugars, Room for Cream

For the third time, Carolyn Pool and Shanan Custer have joined forces to present a delightful evening centered on drinking and conversation. Expanded and updated from its runs at the Minnesota Fringe Festival and Illusion Theater's Fresh Ink Series, 2 Sugars, Room for Cream boasts impressive writing and performances from the duo, who get to the heart of their various characters.

Some of its impact comes just from the painful truth of the situations. An awkward meeting at a high school reunion works because real emotions come out: the awkward sensation that you've landed back in a role you thought you had long escaped, or the uncanny sensation that no one remembers who you are.

Then there are bits of pure joy. Act One ends with a pair of women meeting on a bus. They have coffees — naturally — and are jamming on their iPods. It turns out that both are listening to Kelly Clarkson's "My Life Would Suck Without You." The pair share a few moments, bouncing around to the beat, showing off their playlists, before exiting each other's lives again.

That sense of random encounters and unexpected moments of clarity runs throughout the piece, with Pool and Custer showcasing their comedic and acting chops at every turn. Director Peter Moore helps the two get the most out of their characters, with the overwhelming charm of the duo winning out over any concerns about the production (though the venue's cavern-like vibe does leech some energy). 

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