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New play ‘Arrival & Departure’ inspired by “the most romantic film ever made”

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Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in ‘Brief Encounter.’

Everyone has their most-cherished romantic movie. Even the professionals who make movies. When Time Out London recently polled 101 motion picture experts to select the 100 Best Romantic Films of all time, the panel voted the 1945 classic film Brief Encounter as #1, declaring it “the most romantic film ever made.” They’re not the only ones who think so. The Film Society of Lincoln Center named it “one of the most achingly romantic films ever made.”

What makes Brief Encounter so beloved and unforgettable? Have you seen it? No?  

Directed by David Lean with a screenplay by Noël Coward and starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter is a passionate film about a chance meeting, forbidden love, and finding one’s soul mate.

Now, seventy-three years after the release of the romantic masterpiece, Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs has been awarded exclusive permission by the Noel Coward Estate to transform the film Brief Encounter into his innovative new play, Arrival & Departure, opening July 14.  

Brief Encounter is a classic romantic drama set in 1945 during WWII in and around a London railway station. A married woman, with children, Laura (Celia Johnson), meets a stranger, a doctor (Trevor Howard) named Alec in the train station’s tea room, who kindly removes a piece of grit from her eye then leaves to catch his train. During her subsequent shopping trips every Thursday, Laura bumps into Alec and a friendship develops. Soon, the weekly meetings become an arranged rendezvous. Finally, they confess that they are deeply, overwhelmingly in love.

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With its evocatively fog-enshrouded setting, swooning Rachmaninoff score, and pair of remarkable performances (Johnson was nominated for an Oscar), the film explores the thrill, pain, and tenderness of an illicit romance, and has influenced many a cinematic brief encounter since its release.

The screenplay was adapted and based on playwright Noel Coward’s 1935 short one-act (half-hour) stage play Still Life. It was expanded from five short scenes in a train station to include action in other settings (Laura’s house, the apartment of the married man’s friend, restaurants, parks, train compartments, shops, a car, a boating lake and at the cinema).

The central action of the film, the romance, takes place entirely in flashback, confessed via Laura’s voice-over narration, within Laura’s mind. She simultaneously recounts the story and lives it.

Brief Encounter is unlike other films of this era in its treatment of love and adultery. The honest portrayal of Laura and Alec make them both sympathetic. The two characters, both well-meaning commuters thrown into the rush of wrongful temptation,  remain unpunished for their sins. Although Brief Encounter has been labeled as “the British Casablanca”, the two masterpieces have different views of adultery. Casablanca carefully sides against it, the two lovers acknowledging that in times of war the needs of two people “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Brief Encounter is far more ambiguous, offering both empathy to the characters’ plight and no clear conclusion on the morality of love and passion. They are just two ordinary people who live ordinary lives, but for a brief span of Thursdays, stand on the edge of something extraordinary.

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Deanne Bray and Troy Kotsur in ‘Arrival & Departure.’

In Sachs’ new theatrical spin, Arrival & Departure, a Deaf man and a hard-of-hearing woman, two married strangers, meet accidentally in a New York City subway station. As their casual friendship develops into something deeper, each is forced to confront how their simmering relationship could forever change their lives and the lives of those they love.

The play is performed simultaneously in spoken English and American Sign Language with additional use of open captioning, so that both Deaf and hearing audiences can enjoy the production. Proving that whether it’s a movie transformed into a stage play, a screenplay adapted into a theatre script, or spoken English translated into American Sign Language, in matters of the heart, love is a universal language.

To watch David Lean’s classic romantic film, Brief Encounter, click here. To experience Stephen Sachs’ funny and heart-rending stage adaptation, Arrival & Departure, click here and come to the Fountain Theatre.

For both, bring a box of tissues and someone you love.