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Brief Encounter is a Vintaged Import Delivering Cheeky Wit

Gems that they are, movies from the golden age of black and white cinema are not timeless. The obsolete manners and super-sized emotions of classic romances and melodramas can be so hokey as to be downright distracting.

Which is exactly what Kneehigh theater knows and capitalizes on in their marvelous production of Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter.” Having wowed London, the production is seeing its US premiere at ACT.

Rather than laughing at the goofy and the overwrought, the audience of “Brief Encounter” is laughing with the production. Kneehigh is in on the joke.

By playing up and playing with bygone conventions of melodrama, this 2008 take on a 1945 film (that was, itself an adaptation of Coward’s 1936 play) is utterly contemporary and downright cool.

The whole thing is vintage fashion not old-fashioned.

Director/adapter Emma Rice’s deliriously de-lovely production seamlessly integrates highly stylized theater with retrograded film. Actors walk in and out of film. Stage characters interact with celluloid ones.

At the play’s start, adulterous lovers Laura and Alec lament their forbidden love. Looming over them, Laura’s husband waits above. He -- in muted, low-def 2D -- is part of the black and white movie screening above. Laura ultimately places decency and obligation over passion and happiness, wrenches herself from live Alec (and live theater) and retreats back into the old movie.

From this first magical scene of stage to screen human teleportation, its clear “Brief Encounter” transcends fixed dimensions and fixed notions of theater’s scope.

Jon Driscoll’s projection design turns the big screen into a stage set (the train station where the lovers steal moments together). Film also underscores separation (movie Alec waves from the film train to live Laura) and it conjures emotion and eroticism (crashing waves, underwater undulations). Unlike many so-called “avant-garde” stabs at multi-media theater, here the cinematic is not merely a stand-in for what’s lacking on stage.

The romantic leads (Milo Twomey as Alec and Hannah Yelland as Laura) are fervent and sentimental, anguished and distraught in their dance of Yes, Yes, No No. But all around their retro intensity, the secondary characters are flouncing about and making whoopee. The train station café is peopled by vintage types engaging in shtick and burlesque.

Annette McLaughlin is particularly amusing as Myrtle, the cat-bespectacled bar maid who goes from no-nonsense to risqué sex kitten in a wink of an eye. Her come-hither dance of clownish passion with the station agent (Joseph Alessi) is one of the biggest hoots of the show.

Stuart McLoughlin and Beverly Rudd’s clerks also entertain with cheeky mating rituals and dance hall frolicking.

They all add live song, swing music and dance to the mix, bringing in still more tongue-in-cheek wit to the non-stop cleverness of the whole she-bang.