“Brilliant Adventures” is both more and less than meets the eye. It appears at first to be simply a social-realist drama set in a decaying urban center in the north of England. Then a man enters the scene holding a dog leash connected to another man, who crawls along obediently behind him. Soon a time machine figures prominently. Though some critics and marketers have described this as a science fiction play, the way this time machine is treated merely like a highly desirable appliance smacks more of magical realism. Genre labels notwithstanding, this play isn’t a dystopian warning and it barely broaches the ethical quandaries posed by time travel.
What becomes clear in the magnificently acted production helmed by Danielle Fauteux Jacques at Apollinaire Theatre Company is that, frills aside, this is a story about fraying connections among family and friends who are put under stress by poverty and crime. And though the second act takes some conceptual leaps, Jacques’ focus is on the story’s earthbound elements.
English writer Alistair McDowall sets his play in Middlesbrough, a city in the northeast of England that was a booming center for steel and iron production before being decimated by Luftwaffe bombings and, later, economic dislocation wrought by the decline of manufacturing. The action takes place entirely in the shabby apartment of 19-year-old Luke (played convincingly by Sam Terry), who lives in public housing off disability payments for which he’s made eligible by a crippling stammer. We meet his generally good-for-nothing friend Greg (Geoff Van Wyck) and his drug-dealing older brother Rob (Michael Underhill, also excellent), who seemingly leads an older man — played by Dev Luthra, he’s identified in the script only as The Man — around everywhere like a pet.
The very fabric of civilization here seems to be breaking down. On his way into a pizza place, Greg is pelted with bits of brick dislodged from “crumbly houses” and turned into missiles by their residents. Outside Luke’s urban housing development, a horse mills around. (There’s “loads of ‘em” in the area, he says.) “Looks like you’ve had a war no one noticed,” a drug dealer from London tells him later, newly inspired to build his illicit business in a town where it “feels like the, the wild west, or something.”
The always sturdy Brooks Reeves plays that London drug dealer, called Ben, with icy menace. The only one in this group who hasn’t internalized the sense of agitated desperation that seems to blow on the breeze around here, Ben views the widespread breakdown of opportunity and hope as something that’s good for business. If he’s meant to be a personification of contemporary capitalism — and some angry speech-making in the play’s latter half suggests that he is — McDowall draws his examples of exploitation with broad strokes.
Luke is a self-taught genius who never bothered to finish school. He’s built a working time machine out of repurposed cardboard boxes and an old telephone. The playwright stipulates that “Brilliant Adventures” takes place in 2010, so the casualness with which Luke, Rob and Greg treat the invention is genuinely funny. Though Greg offers the requisite fantasy about going back in time to kill Adolf Hitler, when Ben arrives on the scene and sees the device, his sense of wonder is limited to disbelief that Luke and Rob haven’t already used it to bet on sports or win the lottery. Indeed, the stakes are kept deliberately low — or, at least, domestic. Though there’s a bit of talk about the threat of accidentally disrupting history by traveling back in time, the audience is chiefly invested in Luke’s desire to be safe from the violence around him and to be closer to his brother despite the latter’s dangerous occupation in the drug trade.
The uniformly excellent cast also includes Eric McGowan, in a role best left unspoiled. Nathan Lee’s set cleverly incorporates piles of obsolete electronic equipment and includes that lovingly lo-fi time machine. Fights designed by Danielle Rosvally are convincing and the efforts of dialect coach Christopher Sherwood Davis should be noted as well.
Something about “Brilliant Adventures” feels undercooked; one wants either more or less of its high-concept elements, and there are mysteries that are hinted at but under-explored. (The man-as-pet conceit, for instance, never fully pays off, though a very good Luthra is given a monologue midway through that richly complicates his character.) McDowall is considered in some quarters to be among the most exciting young playwrights in Great Britain, and his other plays, including “Pomona” (about a ghoulish subterranean society) and “X” (set on Pluto) seem to push much deeper into conceptual impulses that here are merely skimmed.
But this is to the present piece’s advantage; its strongest bits are those in which the relationships among these characters are paramount. That's compelling in any place or time.
"Brilliant Adventures" plays at Chelsea Theatre Works through Jan. 21.