Just as William Snelgrave (Gordon Joseph Weiss) and his wife, Darcy (Concetta Tomei), are nearing the end of their quarantine, two interlopers break into their home and the clock resets. It’s 1665, the year of the Great Plague that would kill almost one quarter of London’s population. King Charles II and his family have fled to Oxford, and despite their wealth, the Snelgraves are stuck, barred from leaving after their servants get sick. The interlopers are Morse (Remy Zaken), a twelve-year-old girl who spent two nights and a day under the collapsed, feverish body of her father before he died, and Bunce (Joseph W. Rodriguez), a pirate trying to avoid conscription by the Navy. For a time, the group forms a de facto family, with Morse playing daughter and Bunce servant, though the inevitable equality that catastrophe brings means that these heavily class-inflected roles cannot sustain themselves for long.
Originally produced in 1995, during the peak of AIDS drama, One Flea Spare dislocates playwright Naomi Wallace’s concern with bodies and contamination to distant history. And while her work is often political, this allows her characters and her themes to flourish without the burden of contemporaneity. One Flea Spare is often compared to Brecht. But like Beckett and Pinter before her, Ms. Wallace is a master of the incomplete: she creates the skeleton of an romantic and sexual relationship between Bunce and Darcy, for example, but never gives away so much that we end up satisfied factually but dissatisfied dramatically. In one particularly beautiful scene, Darcy sticks her finger inside a wound of Bunce’s that has never healed. “It feels like I’m inside you,” she tells him. “You are,” he replies. Later, when Snelgrave asks that sailor what his wife’s “cunny” is like, he responds by trickling water out of his mouth down the old man’s face, a moment that is simultaneously tender and violent.
The actors here are largely effective. Ms. Tomei, in particular, has wonderful reserve. Even after Bunce begins to tap into her repressed potential for intimacy, she never abandons what Ford Madox Ford called “English good form.” Meanwhile, Mr. Weiss brings a villainous flair to Snelgrave that serves as a nice foil to the mostly low-key scenes in this drama; at times, he recalls the wide-eyed giddiness of the late-career Roddy McDowall.
Occasionally, however, it feels like director Caitlin McLeod hasn’t fully committed to the play’s more difficult moments. For example, when Kabe (Donte Bonner), the house’s watchman, offers food in exchange for sucking on Morse’s toe, Mr. Bonner and Ms. Zaken mime the action. And while it would admittedly be—let’s say icky—to put one’s mouth on a child’s foot, verisimilitude is really key here for emotional resonance. Nevertheless, it is shameful that such a masterwork remained dormant for twenty years in New York, and ultimately I have nothing but admiration for the team that midwived this realization.
One Flea Spare runs through November 13th at the Sheen Center. 18 Bleecker Street New York, NY. 2 hours 15 minutes. One intermission.