Phantoms, the most recent play about British detective John Ruffing, takes place in 1903 with flashback scenes from earlier years. The three-level unit set has multiple stairs for entrances and exits, and Nigro notes that the ten actors (6m, 4w) may appear and disappear at any time from anywhere. In an endnote to the script he writes: “There are more stage directions in this text than usual, because they seemed necessary to indicate properly the complex labyrinth of movement which is essential here, a kind of objective correlative to what’s going on in Ruffing’s brain. In most cases the stage direction indicates when a movement should begin. It doesn’t mean the dialogue of the other characters stops while the movement takes place. The movement usually continues through the dialogue. American directors often have trouble with simultaneous action, and it’s true that if you don’t do it right you can draw focus away from essential business. But done right, what you have is a wonderfully complex organism in which every moving part is intimately connected to every other part. It can generate astonishing beauty and richness when you trust it. But you must commit to it. It will make the moments of stillness and isolation all that much more powerful.”
The play begins with a cacophony of music and voices as if from the pier at Brighton, and we see Ruffing enter DL to sit at a table with a bottle, glasses, and a deck of cards. Overlapping with the voices of a barker and an oyster woman, we hear a newsgirl shouting headlines about a poisoning, a beautiful young wife, a possible suicide or murder. Florence and Charles Reno enter UL across the gallery and come down the CR steps as Jane Nix and Dr. Bull move from UR across the gallery and down the far left steps to the left landing, while Captain Fortune appears from the DR wings with a bottle, singing, and bumps into Derby, a detective, before going out through the center arch. Derby moves to Ruffing at the table DL as the music and voices fade. Derby tells Ruffing that he was the first investigator of the Reno case and knows that Florence murdered her husband. Fortune appears in the gallery above saying that one should never drink the contents of a small green bottle. Derby offers Ruffing a drink, saying that he heard Ruffing was a bigger souse than he was. Ruffing tells Derby not to speak of his dead wife and Derby says Florence’s first husband, Fortune, didn’t die of drink but of antimony poisoning. As Ruffing leaves, Derby tells him not to drink any wine that Florence may offer him.
On the sofa DR Florence complains to Ruffing about having to answer the same moronic questions again. She tells Ruffing that she and Charles had been married less than a year and that her first husband died three years ago. As they speak, other characters move about the stage, occasionally making remarks not connected directly to the dialogue. Jane, for example, repeats Fortune’s warning about drinking the contents of a small green bottle. In response to Ruffing’s question, Florence describes her first marriage as “an increasingly grotesque nightmare of drunkenness and brutality,” and Ruffing goes up the steps to the left landing and watches as Fortune moves down to Florence asking what she has done with his sword. He is drunk, falling down, and sends Rowan, a servant, to get another pair of trousers. Fortune then charges up the staircase, disappears, and we hear a thud, a crash, and discordant accordion noises. Dr. Bull tells Florence that her husband has died.
Florence tells Ruffing that, except at the end, her second marriage was happier than the first. Charles, calling for Florence, moves upstage of the bed to vomit violently out the window. Florence explains that Jane, who had come from Jamaica after the death of her husband and was housekeeper to Dr. Bolt, became her live-in companion and had known Charles as a child in Jamaica. We hear the sounds of Brighton again as Charles, Florence, and Jane talk on the pier. Jane excuses herself so they can be alone, and Florence tells Ruffing that, when her husband died unexpectedly, she married Charles, following her instincts, choosing a good, solid man over a good-looking, exciting one, but learning quickly to renounce romantic, childish dreams. The mother of Charles, Old Mrs. Reno, with an ear trumpet, sits at the DL table, playing cards, as Ruffing sits at the top of the UR stairs to watch Charles move to his mother. As they talk about Florence, Rowan helps Fortune UL and off. Charles’ mother says he is too good for Florence and wanders off DL calling for cockatoos as Ruffing resumes his questioning of Florence, and Jane repeats the warning about the contents of a small green bottle.
Florence complains to Charles that someone has been opening her mail, and Charles suggests that Jane should return to her job with Dr. Bull. As Charles vomits out the window again, Tabby, a servant, tells Florence that he is very sick. Charles falls on the floor by the bed and Jane sits on him and massages his chest, but he dies. Florence sends Rowan for Dr. Bull and Jane says that Charles whispered to her that he had taken poison and that she was not to tell Florence. Ruffing questions Jane, who adds that Charles might have said that he had taken poison because he was jealous of Dr. Bull’s relationship with Florence. Dr. Bull enters to examine Charles and sends Rowan to collect a sample of the vomit for analysis. Florence tells Ruffing that she does not know who poisoned her husband, but that Charles had become jealous of Dr. Bull after her second miscarriage.
As Ruffing watches, Florence moves to the desk where Fortune is drinking and accusing her of an affair with Dr. Bull. When Fortune leaves and Dr. Bull enters, Florence tells him that she has physical relations with her husband when he is not too drunk. Fortune, drunk, moves to take Tabby to his bed but Rowan intervenes. Florence asks Dr. Bull if he ever thinks of Bad Kissingen. Charles gets up from the bed and Florence says that she will answer any questions he has about her past but that she will not sleep with him. She says that when Charles saw her talking with Dr. Bull they were discussing the waters of Bad Kissingen. She says that Charles’ mother doesn’t like her but that she doesn’t care. Old Mrs. Reno, appearing on the UL gallery, says that Florence is an appealing little slut who won’t sleep with Charles so she won’t infect him with a venereal disease. She tells her son to be careful and never drink the contents of a small green bottle. Charles tells Florence that his name was changed from Nix to Reno when his mother remarried. Charles’ brother married Jane. Florence tells Charles that he may come to her bed later, for company, and then talks with Jane about her marriage and living in Jamaica. Jane says that every house she has lived in has been haunted. Ruffing questions Jane and Florence about separate bedrooms, pointing out that both of Florence’s marriages had the same trajectory—a happy beginning, a miscarriage, indisposition on her part, an increasingly frustrated husband who then died. He asks if she slept with either husband and, when she says she had two miscarriages, points out that she hasn’t answered his question. She says she will not be insulted by a drunk police inspector and adds that Jane slept with her when she was ill.
Ruffing moves up the steps to the right landing as Charles, entering from the left landing, asks Florence why she can sleep with Jane and not with him. He says he understands why her first husband drank himself to death. She says he is not the only person who wishes he was dead. Dr. Bull gets up from the desk and asks Florence how she liked Bad Kissingen. She replies, as a young girl, that she feels grown up and Dr. Bull says that he would do anything for her, die for her, kill for her. Lights fade as the first act ends.
The second act begins with the same eerie lights and cacophonous sounds of the pier at Brighton. Derby talks with Ruffing about Florence killing Charles, but Ruffing doesn’t think she did it and thinks the servants know more than they’re telling. Ruffing first questions Rowan, who observed both of Florence’s marriages. After saying Charles was secretive and suspicious, Rowan moves to speak with Charles at an earlier time as Jane moves to the sofa beside Dr. Bull and Ruffing watches from the inner steps of the right landing. Charles tells Rowan to join him in a drink and asks if he has ever been in love. Rowan says his wife died but that he loved her and tried unsuccessfully to hang himself after her death. Charles asks if Rowan thinks that Florence loves him. Rowan says he doesn’t know the truth but he thinks we are all in love with phantoms. Charles says his wife is not sleeping with him, congratulates Rowan on his affair with Tabby, and asks if he ever observed any irregularities between Dr. Bull and Florence. Rowan says he did not and moves away as Florence speaks with Ruffing, saying that nothing unusual happened the day Charles died. She says she couldn’t sleep with Charles after her miscarriage and Jane repeats that Charles was not murdered but took poison. She says that when Charles returned from riding his horse he seemed disheveled and upset. Charles enters through the center arch at an earlier time complaining that the horse threw him again. He tells Florence he has always been miserable. Florence says he has always had a peculiar body odor and goes to prepare his bath.
Ruffing continues questioning Tabby and Rowan about wine consumption. Tabby says that Florence seemed sad or haunted and backs away from Charles who is coming up the steps. She tells Ruffing that Charles was mumbling to himself and then went into Florence’s bedroom. When he came out he was telling Florence that she drank too much. Charles moves off and Florence asks Tabby if she is seeing anybody. She tells Tabby that she loved a man she couldn’t marry, married a man she didn’t love only to discover that she did love him and then lost him, married a man she didn’t love thinking she could learn to love him, couldn’t, but thought it was safer though it was not.
After Tabby leaves, Ruffing asks Florence about the night Charles died. He tells her that antimony poisoning suggests malicious intent. He says he once considered suicide, and Florence says he is still grieving over the loss of his wife. She asks him questions about his father and his dreams and says that there might have been an intimacy between herself and Dr. Bull whom she met when she was twelve. Dr. Bull enters and he and Florence, now 18, talk about love being an illusion. He tells her he married an older woman for her money, without intimacy or love, a woman now in her late nineties. He tells Florence she needs someone closer to her own age to love and says that he will introduce her to Captain Fortune. She tells Dr. Bull she wants him and they kiss.
As Dr. Bull turns away, Ruffing speaks to Florence in the present and she tells him her marriage to Fortune deteriorated after he somehow found out about her relationship with Dr. Bull. Ruffing tells her that Fortune and Jane had an affair in Jamaica, and Jane says that the affair ended a long time ago and there seemed no point in telling Florence about it. Fortune comments that his life has been “a series of unfortunate juxtapositions and grotesque incongruities.” And he and Jane re-enact the scene in England when he tells her that he is engaged to Florence. Dr. Bull advises Florence not to marry Charles and not to tell Charles about their relationship. Florence tells Ruffing that Dr. Bull was right, that she shouldn’t have married Charles. Jane admits to sleeping with Charles once before Florence met him. Old Mrs. Reno, entering on the UL gallery, looks down at Charles, says that she would think Charles an idiot child left on the doorstep if she hadn’t given birth to him. Ruffing observes Tabby and Charles talking by the bed as he asks her to put her hand on top of his hand. She kneels and does so, but Jane moves to the bed and sends Tabby to the kitchen. Jane tells Charles not to touch Tabby again because it would hurt Florence. Charles says he has nightmares about Jamaica and wants Jane to leave his house. She says the house belongs to Florence and if he hurts her she will see that he never hurts anyone again. Charles storms out through the center arch and Jane explains to Florence that people were not telling her everything because they loved her. When Florence leaves, Jane turns on Ruffing and asks him if he sees what he’s done with all his damned stupid questions.
Ruffing crosses to Derby at the table DL and learns that Derby had Fortune’s body dug up and determined that, like Charles, he had been poisoned with antimony. Ruffing says that might be proof the same person murdered both men, but it is not who Derby thinks. Ruffing turns to Dr. Bull, informing him that Fortune was poisoned with antimony. Fortune enters and replays a scene in which Dr. Bull tells him that he needs to stop drinking. Fortune asks him how long he has been molesting Florence and leaves to get more wine. Ruffing tells Dr. Bull that either he or Florence poisoned both husbands, or perhaps they did it together. Dr. Bull says that when he looks at people he sees nothing but shadows, phantoms. He staggers and admits to poisoning both men with antimony but says he has poisoned himself with something else. He goes into the garden to collapse and not make a mess for the servants. Ruffing tells Florence that Dr. Bull confessed that he killed her husbands because he wanted her for himself. But, Ruffing says, he lied to protect her because he thought she killed them both. Florence says she thought Jane had poisoned them. As Fortune enters to the desk to drink, Jane looks at him and remembers that the night he died Charles came to see him. Charles and Fortune enact the scene where Charles tells Fortune that he wants to marry Florence. When Fortune leaves, Charles takes out a small green bottle, pours the contents into the wine, and goes off. Jane says Fortune was found dead the next morning. She adds that either Charles poisoned himself out of remorse or it really was Dr. Bull. Florence says she doesn’t know anything and Jane replies that all she knows for sure is that she loves Florence. Ruffing says the investigation is closed and goes to the UR gallery as Tabby and Rowan, in a flashback to an earlier time, talk and hug but are surprised by Old Mrs. Reno entering DL. She asks if the wine bottles are for dinner and sends the two off, takes out a small green bottle, and pours it into the wine that she thinks Florence drinks. “There,” she says,”that’ll fix the bitch.” And we know how Charles was poisoned. Blackout.