Bleached canvas, aggrieved spouse — the play is “Medea,” so we know what awaits us at the crimson-splattered final turn of this 21st-century take on Euripides, courtesy of writer-director Simon Stone. But somehow, a denouement that should pierce like a scalpel merely manages to open a paper cut.
Rose Byrne is the rapidly decompensating Medea of this stylishly updated version at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, replete with such modernizing gewgaws as roving cameras and giant video screens. Here renamed Anna, her brokenhearted character fidgets and stews and laughs nervously from the start, and in such demonstrative ways that you can’t believe no one notices she’s unhinged and still prone to violence. After all, what put her on the psych ward was her effort to season the food of her husband, Bobby Cannavale’s Lucas, with ricin, a potent poison.
Nope, neither the now-recovered Lucas nor her therapist, Jordan Boatman’s Elsbeth, seems particularly alarmed by how badly Anna is dealing with Lucas’s decision to marry Clara (Madeline Weinstein), the daughter of a friend (Dylan Baker’s Christopher) and half Anna’s age. So, with your skeptical antennae fully activated, you’re compelled to observe her from a clinical distance and question the credibility of professional bystanders and the impact of unwitting contributors to Anna’s condition.
Stone’s devising of a newfangled context for “Medea” comes nowhere near the dramatic coup of his modern scheme for “Yerma,” his wildly powerful 2018 repurposing of the 1934 play by Federico García Lorca. That production, which unfolded in a gigantic terrarium at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory, featured a galvanizing performance by Billie Piper as a woman driven mad by her failure to conceive a child. You watched her psychic disruption in the glass box as if a shattering laboratory experiment were underway.
In BAM’s Harvey Theater, the parameters of tragedy seem less imaginatively worked out: the choices are less interesting, the outline of calamitous transgression and its consequence duller, too easy to anticipate. The most inspired aspect of the production is an imagistic flourish. From the grid above Bob Cousins’s arresting set floats a funnel of ash that slowly gathers in a pile on the bare white floor — the embers, it seems, of Anna’s alternative story, one unsullied by betrayal and nervous collapse.
Cannavale cloaks Lucas, a research scientist, in suave, even arrogant reserve: his blunt and callous explanations for why he’s taken up with Clara amount to aggressions masked as honesty; they seem invitations to revenge. With two young sons (the engaging Jolly Swag and Orson Hong at my performance) hovering charmingly, audience members will surely dread their knowledge of Euripides, and how badly things will go for them.
Byrne’s performance seems to begin and end on the same note. Her Anna — thwarted at work as well as at home — evinces desperation at all times. We’re given no chance to harbor a belief that there is a way out for her and, therefore, everybody else. This may suffice as far as the Greek gods are concerned, but a post-Freudian world demands more substance than either the actress or Stone supply.
Medea, written and directed by Simon Stone, after Euripides. Set, Bob Cousins; costumes, An D’Huys; music and sound, Stefan Gregory; lighting, Sarah Johnston; video, Julia Frey. With Victor Almanzar. About 80 minutes. $45-$195. Through March 8 at Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn. 718-636-4100. bam.org.