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.
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.
How Obama Got His Groove Back is a romp of fitfully amusing political sketches. And when the jokes misfire, or knock you on the head for the fifth time, it doesn't matter much; this jukebox musical has good will to spare.
Director/co-author Derek Jeremiah Reid plays the title role, about a world-weary U.S. prez who'd much rather be on American Idol doing his best Otis Redding imitation than leading the free world.
"Old-school, I know," he quips to Michelle (Constance Reese), who is obsessed with keeping her man out of the hands of his newly hired dance instructor (Natascha Corrigan) and perfecting her weight-loss videos.
A very funny subplot has Mitt Romney (Phillip Wilburn) taking improv classes from Greg Gregory (Brent Pope, doubling as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who has similar dreams of performing on American Idol). Regardless of whatever line he's fed by his scene partner (Courtney DeCosky), Romney has one, and only one, wooden response: "Hi, I'm Mitt Romney."
Thrown out of class for incompetence, Romney fires the instructor, who doesn't realize that Romney just purchased the improv studio. (Wilburn also does another gorgeous cameo as Donald Trump.)
When Romney and his wife, Ann (DeCosky), are on Fox News, being interviewed by Sarah Palin (Corrigan again), jokes abound about his favorite position being missionary and the pleasures of coming from behind. When Palin asks Ann about accusations that her husband is too stiff, she says that's no problem at all. Yep, old-school.
It's all silly, facile fun, with obvious jokes stating the obvious: Our political system is a farce.
Even if Reid's Obama concludes that he really does have serious responsibilities, it's hard to believe his too-tidy resolve. Maybe it was the way Reid was sliding from Harvard-educated brainiac to James Brown on the turn of a dime. Still, strange as it may seem, it's a good thing the play's serious ending misfires. It keeps the nuttiness on the surface, right where it needs to be.
It doesn't happen very often that a play's imperfection turns out to be its saving grace, but that's the case here. And Reid is terrific in the title role.
THE CITY | By Martin Crimp | Son of Semele Ensemble, 3301 Beverly Blvd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; Mon., Sept. 17, 7 p.m.; no perfs Sept. 7-9; through Sept. 23 | (213) 351-3507 | sonofsemele.org
HOW OBAMA GOT HIS GROOVE BACK | Written by Nicholas Zill and Derek Jeremiah Reid | City in a Swamp Productions at Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m., through Oct. 7 | (866) 811-4111 | fremontcentretheatre.com