In 1989, a foreign bureaucrat (Mark Harelik), representing the Ministry of Culture in some (fictitious) Middle Eastern nation named Aqaat, commissions an American architect (Matt Letscher) to build a gazebo near that nation's presidential palace. This is more complicated than it sounds. The two can't agree on the definition of gazebo (the bureaucrat prefers "summer house") or even who the minister is. ("You are the Minister of Culture?" clarifies the architect. Replies the bureaucrat, "In essence.") Furthermore, Aqaat is a controversial Muslim nation helmed by Brother Najid (Jarlon Monroe), who shares the qualities of pretension and intimidation with a deceased dictator whose name rhymes with Madame Coltrane. Playwright and screenwriter Howard Korder's red-tape comedy hinges on the communication breakdown between a Yank who wants answers and a client (or "patron," as the bureaucrat prefers) who speaks in metaphors about dragonflies and Dances with Wolves
, and is anchored by an otherworldly condescension for Letscher's ideas, and the patronizing confidence that his frazzled employee will eventually get it right, even as the months tick by. But Korder and director David Warren have put together something bigger than a Kafka-esque culture clash: This is a bitterly funny play about trust, ego and beauty a trinity that rarely survives any regime intact. (It's no coincidence that Korder has challenged his characters to commandeer a garden, the site of man's original downfall.) As the frustrated architect, Letscher is an overly sensitive sputterer and people-pleaser forever on the verge of storming out of the minister's palace. He's terrific, but this very smart play is in Harelik's haberdashered pocket. At once obsequious and imperious, maddening and brilliant, Harelik stirs up a jumble of emotions that encompass not so much our feelings for his ancient civilization as a man continually in the news, a man who commands respect and caution, yet he's given neither by his own cavalier masters. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; through March 28. (714)708-5555.
Fri., March 12, 7:45 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays, 2 & 7:45 p.m.; Tuesdays-Fridays, 7:45 p.m. Starts: March 12. Continues through March 28, 2010