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Yankee Diddle

Photo by Jason Adams

IN BRIAN COUSINS' FIRST PLAY, A DRAMA IN 33 SCENES titled And Still the Dogs, an unnamed American businessman arrives in an unnamed Eastern European country. You may wonder why his name isn't Chuck or Dick, or something more specific than The Man. All the other principals in the play have names. His partner, for instance, is dubbed Roger. And why isn't the country specified? After all, according to the program notes, the playwright has spent a fair amount of time in Romania.

Perhaps he's dropping a hint that we should be looking not for the character's identity but for his characteristics -- the whys and ways a goal-oriented, profit-motivated American starts to feel so bewildered somewhere east of the Danube.

Cousins is actually dramatizing the abstracted essence of American cluelessness -- the reasons we, and our messianic faith in the curative power of the free market, are so often received overseas with drop-jawed amazement, if not fury, that we would happily turn the entire world into an imitation of the United States. When Bill Clinton visited Moscow in the fall of 1998, as the ruble was plunging -- and plunging the Russian economy -- into an abyss, the American president kept encouraging more privatization and open-market reforms, as though former Communist thieves and thugs weren't still running the show, as though the markets weren't rigged, as though Clinton were not actually in the former Soviet Union but in Nevada before the Mafia showed up. Muscovites on the streets were too despondent at the time to react even with their trademark sarcasm.

The beauty of Cousins' noirish episodic drama, presented by Ensemble Studio Theater (The L.A. Project) at Hollywood's Lillian Theater, lies in the wit with which he evokes such gulfs of comprehension, between the West and the East, between the delegates of a brash young nation that can barely remember what little history it has accrued and those of an arthritic country hobbled by epochs of tradition and corruption.

As though they're hosts on The Price Is Right, The Man and Roger make sales pitches -- to eerily masked figures -- for chocolate-chip cookies, soap, fabric softeners and cigarettes on behalf of their company, Mark 'n Bark, and its distributor, Dutch Extel. The sales pitch may be an easy cartoon, especially as rendered by the Mutt & Jeff juxtaposition of Garret M. Brown's looming Man and Colin Mitchell's puglike Roger. But Cousins has the skill to show Americans stupefied by their situation without their being stupid -- particularly as they find themselves implicated in a Kafkaesque corruption investigation, and then blackmailed.

The Man's creeping cynicism emerges in a telling repartee with Roger, who remarks idealistically, just before their troubles: "These people have had nothing. We're bringing them a free market, not a black one. We're working through legitimate channels that are approved by their newly elected government."

Answers The Man: "Welcome to the West. Have some Cheese Squeeze."

As soon as they figure they've deciphered the Eastern Code -- that any impediment to their business transactions can be resolved with a bribe -- they're justifiably charged with business improprieties, and their passports are temporarily confiscated. Of course, they had no choice. Their resolution: another, even larger payoff. How large is enough? How long will the next delay be in getting the paperwork to distribute their wares? Are they just impatient Americans, or does time in this land of antiquity really stand still?

An erotic liaison between The Man and a lonely local woman named Emilia (Jacqueline Wright) embodies the same intercontinental divide. Though she speaks sagely to The Man about the weight of history ("In my country, a man who fixes shoes works in a room where a man 500 years ago also fixes shoes"), the characters' contrary, underlying attitudes reside between the lines, in the contrapuntal energies of the two performers: in Brown's physical bluster and the way it bounces off sinewy Wright, and her steady, sultry gait. His words erupt in nasal American spurts, hers in rolling Slavic waves. His thoughts emerge in straight lines, hers in ellipses. His tone is forthright, hers droll. His smile is earnest, hers twisted in pain and mockery.

The Man presumes we choose our mates and lovers, while Emilia regards such unions as part of the workings of destiny. Which is how she defends her affair with a crazed neo-Nazi, who has recently returned to his German homeland. "Our journey together began long before he and I met," she says.

"I wouldn't have anything to do with a guy like that," The Man answers.

This little exchange is as penetrating and delicate a dissection of free will as any of the business scenes' overt surrealism. He simply can't comprehend the notion that he has no choice, for he is of the New World, where people control their destiny; she is of the Old World, where destiny controls people.

A largely dismissive review in the Los Angeles Times complained that the play's symbols are too obvious, which is rather like arguing that The Threepenny Opera is too heavy-handed. Subtlety couldn't be further from Cousins' point. Had Bertolt Brecht been aiming for subtlety, he surely would have adapted a work by Chekhov rather than John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Similarly, Cousins' world is that of street thugs and assassins who would cut your throat in an alley, then yank out your teeth and slice off your fingertips in order to eliminate all traces of who you were.

Cousins' play, the work of a scintillating ensemble (roles alternate), and Dan Bonnell's tender direction meld into a work of insight that's far-reaching but far from obvious. Emilia and The Man may make love, but they will never come together. He will remain mystified by the workings of her heart, and of her country.

AND STILL THE DOGS | By BRIAN COUSINS | Presented by ENSEMBLE STUDIO THEATER (THE L.A. PROJECT) at the LILLIAN THEATER, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood | Through April 14


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