The vignettes draw upon Ms. Mulligan’s unheralded gifts as a mime artist — suddenly, she must play an entire family — and come with a visual commentary: At various moments, the set from Es Devlin crackles into brightly vivid life, only to revert in an instant to the neutered, anesthetizing look that pervades throughout. (Ms. Devlin and Ms. Turner, the director, are frequent, and invaluable, collaborators.)
Visual contrast is missing from this landscape. Something else is missing, as well, though to elaborate would result in an unforgivable spoiler. What can be said is that the Ms. Mulligan we see at the close of the uninterrupted 90 minutes has an altogether different aspect from the freewheeling raconteur seen at the start. Rather like the American playwright Neil LaBute, who has traversed comparable terrain in such plays as “Bash: Latter-Day Plays,” Mr. Kelly addresses humankind’s capacity for violence at every turn. Not even the children are exempt.
So far so good, if so depressing, though hardly more so than the world at large. But not content to leave well enough alone, Mr. Kelly dresses up his narrative in ways that detract from its power, like some overzealous puppeteer. More than once, there is the sort of rhetorical question — “Does that make sense?” — that in the theater tends to make me queasy, lest an overeager audience member reply. And I’m not sure we need the reminder that this grievous tale represents only one side of the story. Since when did the theater become a courtroom requiring equal time for all?
If the play overreaches for effect, there’s no trace of the sensational in Ms. Mulligan’s performance, which is accompanied by a playfulness and quick-wittedness that bypass the gathering thesis-mongering of the final passages. (You can’t help but feel that Mr. Kelly devised his play in order to corroborate a grim statistic that’s mentioned near the end.) “Girls & Boys” may work from the outside in, but it’s blessed with an actress whose integrity anchors a play that, without her, might well seem a sleekly oiled con.
For a stage monologue cut from less flashy (but more honest) cloth, try “The B*easts,” written and performed by Monica Dolan. Running at the Bush Theater in West London through March 3, the 65-minute production from the director John Hoggarth focuses on Tessa, a fortysomething psychotherapist who reports not altogether dispassionately on a case to which her character has a saddening personal connection.
The moral inquiry on view involves a mother who has facilitated breast implants for her 8-year-old daughter amid a hypersexualized culture that, in the language of the play, “wants you to want.” Moving on to embrace the dark web, the depredations of Facebook and a society in which the phone has “become a human right,” Ms. Dolan proves as exacting an authorial commentator as she is a compelling stage presence. Forever leaning into the audience so as to gain our confidence, her Tessa becomes our guide in a world that gives genuine cause for alarm.
I would be remiss not to commend (and how!) a third splendid actress — this one a visitor to the London stage. Marylouise Burke has long been a New York theater stalwart, and she has now crossed the Atlantic as the lone American performer in the National Theater premiere of Annie Baker’s ravishing and mysterious “John.” (The production in the Dorfman auditorium finishes March 3.)
Playing the landlady of a Pennsylvania boardinghouse filled to bursting with tchotchkes — if only there were tours of Chloe Lamford’s set! — Ms. Burke presides with abiding sweetness over both the (quarrelsome) couple who have come to stay and the play itself: Her character, Mertis, pulls open the floor-length curtains at the start, welcoming us into some gently otherworldly realm. The bows at the end are staged as if in an opera house, and snippets from Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” prove crucial to the climactic scene.
Amid an impeccable four-person ensemble, Ms. Burke is a league apart — not just for a fluty voice possessing cadences all its own, but also for her caress of Ms. Baker’s signature flourishes. As directed by James Macdonald, the production is nowhere more moving than in Ms. Burke’s enumeration of the various collective nouns for birds that include “an exaltation of larks.” By the end of the play’s riveting three and a half hours (with two intermissions), it is we who are among the exalted, having been in the presence of a performer who is an absolute one-off, on either side of the Atlantic.
Girls & Boys. Directed by Lyndsey Turner. Royal Court Jerwood Theater Downstairs, through March 17.
The B*easts. Directed by John Hoggarth. Bush Theater, through March 3.
John. Directed by James Macdonald. National Theater / Dorfman, through March 3.