11/28/2016 05:14 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2017

First Nighter: Lot Vekemans's Harsh, Heart-Breaking "Poison," Brooks Reeves's Less Heart-Lifting "The City That Cried Wolf"

In Lot Vekemans's Poison, the Origin Theatre Company production at Theatre Row's Beckett, the character designated He (Michael Laurence) is considering the situation he shares with ex-wife She (Birgit Huppuch) and says something along the lines of worse things could have happened to them than has happened.

It's a challenge to imagine what. They're meeting in the cemetery where their son, who was killed in an automobile accident, is buried. He maintains it's now nine years since She and He have seen each other. She claims it's 10 years, and they never reach an agreement. They've reunited for a conference with an official (never seen) who'll explain to them why and how their deceased boy's disinterment will take place due to the cemetery ground recently being declared poisoned by contaminated water.

What has definitely been poisoned, of course, is the He-She relationship, as Dutch playwright Vekemans makes plain during the painful 90-minute encounter on Jian Jung's spare white set, furnished only with a long, low bench and a vending machine dispensing drinks. (Rina Vegano is the translator.)

As He and She reluctantly relive their shared past, she reiterates that she grieves every day for her child and grows increasingly resentful as she suspects that he does not. She finds that his now living in France is evidence that he's put their loss behind him. She's further convinced when he refers to a new wife. She has no idea that a marriage had occurred.

He insists that he is, and has been, as bereft as She about their disconsolate loss and attempts to reconcile with her more than she tries with him. In that disparity, Vekemans underscores one of her points: that grief takes different forms and that moving on after such a disaster is a matter of individual choice and resilience.

A question Vekemans plants in the collective audience mind is whether reconciliation of any kind can develop between people torn so tragically apart. Suggesting that only so much might be possible, she writes about it with dark wisdom. It's a condition not only affecting She and He deeply but also affecting spectators the same way: Because Poison is so well composed, it's that difficult to watch.

The somber Poison tone is more resolutely established by countertenor Jordan Rutter, who walks slowly through the auditorium and then across the stage and back a time or two, intoning Richard Strauss's "Morgen." The poem, which promises that happiness can eventually come to the despairing. Whether this is true is a possibility Vetemans raises but doesn't quite resolve. Nor should she.

While Poison is undoubtedly hard for audiences to endure, what does it do to actors? Can it be easy for performers to negotiate the script eight times a week? Probably not, although only Huppuch (gallant recently in Men on Boats) and Lawrence (over the top not long ago in Hamlet in Bed) know for sure. Maybe astringent director Erwin Maas has some idea. But the couple, as the estranged couple, retreat from nothing in their potent, chillingly nuanced interpretations. Poison is relentlessly harrowing, and Huppuch and Laurence play their parts in achieving that.
Not to be too mysterious about The City That Cried Wolf, a mock mystery written by Brooks Reeves and directed by Leta Tremblay, let's just say that it's tedious, unnecessarily convoluted and, at 100 minutes, too long by half.

The conceit of a production, at 59E59 Theatres and first seen 10 years ago, is that the frenzied action takes place in Gotham-like Rhyme Town, which is inhabited by nursery rhyme characters. It's a far-fetched Mother Goose-rhymes farrago in which Mother Goose (Michelle Concha) herself figures as a police chief, and Little Bo Peep (Rebecca Spiro) bombshells about in bonnet and sultry frocks as a nightclub femme fatale. (Angela Borst is the resourceful costume designer).

Jack B. Nimble (Adam La Faci) is the detective attempting to determine who killed city councilman Humpty Dumpty (Dalles Wilie) in a great fall. (Don't think that the puns about a cracked egg stop at just a few. They drag on and on but will not be repeated in this critical response.) A long time passes while Nimble pursues the guilty party and, narrating in a timeworn Philip Marlowe manner, profusely deconstructs familiar rhymes.

For instance, every time he mentions that Rhyme Town's London Bridge is falling down, he's required to say, "falling down, falling down, falling down." One thing missing, or maybe this onlooker missed it: Jack never jumps over a candlestick.

As Nimble repeatedly maneuvers through a door endlessly wheeled about on casters, La Faci is more than satisfactory. That can't be said about the others trying their darnedest to be amusing in the strained enterprise. Incidentally, the title refers to the wolves roaming free and criminally in Rhyme Town. But while Rhyme Town may be crying "Wolf!" audiences are more likely to be crying "Uncle!"