By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Both Martin Crimp's The City, in its U.S. premiere at Son of Semele Ensemble, and How Obama Got His Groove Back, a musical farce by Nicholas Zill and Derek Jeremiah Reid at South Pasadena's Fremont Centre Theatre, aim to have the whole world in their sights.
The City, written by one of the best living British dramatists at the height of his literary powers, takes us from London to a secret war in Afghanistan in the stories it tells, while Obama careens from the Oval Office to North Korea, to New York City and La Jolla, with a turbaned Taliban visitor to the White House bringing Afghanistan, or maybe Pakistan, into the mix.
The two plays couldn't be further apart in their tone and ambitions, or in the tools they use to engage their audiences. They share a singularly bleak view of things, but while The City aims to discomfit, Obama's purpose is to divert.
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The City penetrates bleakness by using language as its scalpel. Its playwright is clearly influenced by the linguistic precision and icy subtexts of Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Shakespeare. Obama, meanwhile, cuts through the bleakness with sarcasm and parody, deriving from Roman comedy via the British music hall, Jon Stewart and Saturday Night Live.
The City asks us to feel how far the world is from anything resembling so-called humanity. Obama asks us to shrug off that depressing thought with a wink and a wisecrack.
What binds them, however, is how their central characters weary of their lives' verifiably lunatic realities, and how each seeks refuge in art.
The City's central character, Clair (Sarah Rosenberg), is a professional translator of literature, not unlike playwright Crimp, who has translated works by Ionesco, Koltès, Genet, Marivaux, Molière and Chekhov. Clair aims to write a novel, and the larger part of Crimp's play unveils the mysteries by which she transforms the events and people from her estranged marriage into the fiction in her head. Ultimately, the play is her invention, because Crimp is examining the solipsism that keeps us at a subtly brutal remove from each other. It's the same solipsism that allows presidents to order drone strikes on civilians: more abstract than real, the victims, too, might as well be fictitious characters.
Such scenes show up in both plays — in a harrowing description by Clair's neighbor, nurse Jenny (Melina Bielefelt), whose husband told her of such atrocities while serving as a doctor in the aforementioned secret war, and in the lampoon of Barack Obama, apparently distracted from his current ambition of being a soul singer by such annoying intrusions as the necessity of ordering drone strikes. ("OK, OK, go ahead," he says on the phone, eager to get back to working on his act for American Idol.)
That solipsism is the stock-in-trade for any writer, whose characters are mere conjurings. In Crimp's 90-minute play, Clair's husband, Chris (Dan Via), who plunges in the course of the action from some kind of urbane midlevel executive job at a multinational corporation to work in a butcher shop, winds up barely literate, struggling to read from her diary the very events we've seen unfold onstage.
Those events concern the couple, their daughter (Elise Ramacciotti) and the neighbor, Jenny. The entire first scene is a conversation between Clair and Chris in which she tries to explain to him a bizarre interaction she had with a writer named Mohammed — who is both well-versed in the details of torture and trying to buy a diary for his daughter, who was just spirited away by his hostile sister-in-law.
Chris, however, barely pays attention, more obsessed with his story about his struggle to get into the building where he works. The swipe card wasn't functioning. The firm, he explains, is restructuring, and he is clearly anxious for his job. Husband and wife are in separate bubbles. She's smitten with Mohammed, while her husband is incapable of the assertiveness that she finds arousing. She goads him to kiss her, playing that it's against her will, and he can't bring himself to do it. This marriage is in trouble, for any number of reasons.
By the time Jenny arrives to complain that their children's noise prevents her from sleeping during the day, and relays her husband's horror stories from his secret mission, Crimp has layered themes about the way anxiety penetrates both our inner and outer worlds. And this is how Crimp drives along the road paved by Pinter in such plays as Betrayal and Old Times, the same vaguely polite, strained interactions between intimates revealing the void at the center of their love.
Matthew McCray directs a beautifully conceived production. A particular highlight is Nicolas Benacerraf's design of vertical walls of slatted cloth, so that the slats can be torn away, opening the tiny stage piecemeal to reveal hidden depths. The set, like the play, accrues dimension. John Zalewski's sound design uses the subtlest of background noises to accentuate the menace behind the words and within the body language.
The ensemble is very good — good enough to reveal the play's intelligence and ambitions. Yet on opening night, at least, the language, with its dialect and intricate digressions, was still slyly pushing the actors around the stage, rather than the inverse. They all appear capable enough to command the language with greater authority; their performances should grow as they get more comfortable with it.