by Anne Washburn
at the Vineyard Theatre
by Adam Bock
at Soho Rep
I found much to admire in these two new plays. For starters, neither is about a playwright, nor indeed are any of the characters artists of any sort. Both playwrights attempt to use stage language for purposes other than showing off how articulate and overeducated they themselves are. Instead their dialogue dramatizes, in different ways, how fractured communication between human beings can be. In both plays, meaning is not spelled out ad nauseum by telling us just what their characters are thinking. In fact, if one only read the "lines" of each script, one would miss most of the "meaning" entirely.
Perhaps most refreshingly, both plays center around a place of work, not an impossibly expensive loft or a Hamptons estate. The design team of The Thugs (they're worth naming: David Korins, Michelle Phillips, Ben Stanton, Mary Vorrasi, Robert Kaplowitz, Jeremy J. Lee) achieved new heights of mundaneness, crafting the downright ugliest, most offputting, and most recognizable office I've ever seen on a stage. We've all had a bad summer or temp job in this place--bare walls, cheap folding tables (3 workers to a table), even filing cabinets would be an extravagance so boxes pile in the corner. The play's advertising refers to the location a "major city"--and the neat "working" elevator implies an office building of many floors--but to me this evoked (wonderfully) a makeshift outpost in a stripmall outside of some midsize metropolis like Phoenix.
My point in focusing so much on the setting of Thugs is only to emphasize how part of the premise of the work is that it is the kind of place the moiety of Americans spend their lives in every day. With its diverse cast of excellent actors, The Thugs looks like America in every way. All the more disturbing, then, are its stop-and-go cryptic and seemingly empty verbal exchanges, as well as the violence that creeps into this bland world, bit by bit, from unnamed outside forces. While I admit I did not know what was "going on" on stage half the time, I've seen few plays lately that have generated more tension and suspense. As reports circulate of dead bodies found in other offices, you know something bad is going to happen. When it finally does, like everything else in the play it's random and obscure--and yet you're still creeped out. The true horror of The Thugs is the hell its petty paralegals are trapped in day in day out, rendered by director Anne Kaufman and her quirky yet highly controlled cast in all its numbing and suffocating routine. Highlighters and coffee makers have never seemed so threatening.
The office in The Internationalist is quite different. It's much more sleek and upscale--but then again the exchange rate in the nameless, fictitious Eastern European country of its setting may be so low, who knows how much it is in dollar value. It's a small company, but important enough to attract a visit by an American businessman to cultivate some entrepreneurial globalizing partnership. The plot of The Internationalist ostensibly centers on the troubled would-be romance between the businessman and the office assistant. But I found myself most drawn to the life Washburn creates around this enigmatic little start-up and its cadre of oddball Euro-supervisors. They are welcoming to the American but not warm, friendly but formal. One is nerdy (the hilarious Liam Craig), one is slimy, and the boss is a turtlenecked pipe smoking ex-hippie who turns ruthless on a dime. The tension between them all is heightened by Washburn's most conspicuous (and, no doubt, most argued over) device in the play--the invention of a foreign language. Personally, I loved this. Sure, some passages of the gibberish go on too long. But I also got a kick out of how long Washburn is committed to keeping up the joke, as it were. And however annoying it gets to the audience, it does achieve that singularly creepy and unsettling feeling of truly being the foreigner in a foreign land. Washburn's invented language is effective because it is impossible to describe; it sounds like no other European language and, if anything, sounds like some cross-pollination of Klingon and Borat. The actors also deliver it (quite deliberately, I believe) with no discernible accent. So the humor here is not at the expense of the "funny foreigners" but of the American, of us.
What keeps The Internationalist watchable is the looming menace and uncertainty of this world, and Zak Orth's winning performance as a mediocre over-polite yuppie getting in over his head. Washburn teases us with the romantic relationship, but smartly doesn't let the play get highjacked by it. (Her weak ending, though, relies too much on it.) In some plays, an endless string of nameless walk-on characters (all played by the same three or four actors) can get tiresome, but here the eccentric cavalcade is part of the fun, and skillfully underplayed by director Ken Rus Schmoll's expertly cast ensemble. There is a nice subdued ironic tone to the play and the staging which--again--is a welcome relief to the smug intellectualism and pandering sentimentality so common in the new plays that get produced. The Internationalist may not give you much to "take away" (though there is an ideological current of a parallel US/male hubris) but I was fully engaged moment to moment by its original and idiosyncratic vision and, yes, language.
As productions, both shows arguably show off downtown theatre at its most accomplished. Kaplowitz and Lee's Thugs sound design alone deserves an immediate Obie, for instance. And the tiny Soho Rep shows you don't need Roundabout-size resources to fully and magnificently realize a good script. The Vineyard is already in a slightly higher class of budget than Soho, but even so the team of Andromache Chalfant, Jeff Croiter, and again(!) Kaplowitz and Philips bring the impossible world of Washburn's play to intriguing life.
In short, if I haven't been writing an extensive literary analysis of these plays or if I haven't been cataloguing their classic dramaturgical flaws, that's because in the end I was impressed with how each rewrote the rules, and how each playwright collaborated with fine actors, directors, designers on putting something new and honest on stage. If that's not theatrical success I don't know what is.
Internationlist was a Bloggers Night event, so you can check out what the other cybercritics are saying, too. Start with Isaac, then you can follow his links round the horn.
Wednesday, November 15, 2006