NEW YORK CITY | Why director Jamie Richards does not push the envelope further in her commendable revival of Lee Blessing’s 1988 play Two Rooms, currently in performance through August 25 (at the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row in New York) bears asking. It’s an interpretive question that hangs over this Diverse City Theater Company production like the bleached white frame of a room that is literally suspended from the ceiling well above the actors’ heads.
In addition to being functional (for the purposes of projecting war imagery), the scenic and lighting design by Maruti Evans is arresting and quietly breathtaking. It lifts Blessing’s drama from the Beckettian starkness that frequently becomes the go-to mode for theater-makers who seek to mix their artistic practice with complex political meaning.
There’s a reason Blessing’s Two Rooms is frequently revived. The play is a marvel of simplicity. And the issues it tackles are chronic and global in nature. Blessing’s play draws its inspiration from the Lebanon hostage crisis of the mid 1980s. The two rooms of the title announce the existence of two prisons: a cell in Beirut where a kidnapped man has been held hostage by terrorists, and a self-created prison that his forlorn wife has imagined back in America. The wife clears out her abducted husband’s old office and repaints the walls so that she can live as she imagines he’s living in captivity. She holes herself inside a Beirut of the mind. Maruti Evans’s Damoclean design figuratively unites two rooms. It epitomizes an ever-present danger, the sense of foreboding bred by precarious hostage crises.
Diverse City Theater’s nervy production argues that Two Rooms has not lost an inch of topical relevance (even though Blessing himself notes in an interview in the company’s website that “perhaps today’s audiences won’t be quite so stunned by governmental indifference to the plight of American citizens in this sort of situation”). The play has not lost its eloquence. It is a muted cry of rage. Undiminished are its import and lyrical effectiveness. It dramatizes a couple’s harrowing isolation (not just in a foreign country but in one’s homeland).
Yet it is precisely because Blessing’s play continues to have a strong shelf life, more than 20 years after it was first produced, that it demands a completely new set of eyes that could have rattled directorial conventions. It would have been more fascinating, for instance, if both rooms simultaneously occupied the space. Maruti Evans’s suspended structure suggests that the play is sturdy enough to bear fresh abstractions, which could have opened other possibilities (the couple might have been communicating through porous rooms.) Why hold Blessing’s play hostage to the exhausted traditions of a stripped-to-essentials revival?
One obvious weakness of Blessing’s Page One approach to dramaturgy rests in the schematic nature of Two Rooms. He seeks to put an emphatic face on complex political issues, and so he presents us with an articulate husband and wife, Michael and Lainie Wells (portrayed by Curran Connor and Bree Michael Warner, respectively). Their tragic plight mirrors any number of real-life hostage situations in the Middle East or in the Muslim South of the Philippines.
The play also gives us Ellen, a State Department employee, whom Ellen pursues to bring her information about her husband and most importantly to bring him home. Meanwhile, Lainie is pursued by Walker, a newspaper reporter hungry for the story of this bereaved widow and the ineptitude of the U.S. government in trying to bring her husband back.
Wisely, Richards’s actor-centered production focuses on the conflict that arises when Lainie agrees to talk to the snooping press — an act that greatly angers Ellen and the State Department. Her revival shifts back and forth from the bickering between the press and the state to the couple’s quiet containment of their suffering and their devotion.
This emotional pivoting allows Blessing’s considerable gifts for metaphorical dialogue to come to the fore — and it paves the way for Bree Michael Warner to stand out as an actor. As Lainie, she brings an honesty and sincerity to the part of the tender and loving wife living in her imagination and as the guarded woman living in the real world on the edge of collapse. Dawn Evans, as the ice-queen from the State Department, sometimes verges on the caricature, but she’s effective given the straitjackets of a part that requires her to red-tape her humanity and yap bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo.
Victor Lirio is terrific as the opportunistic journalist who pushes Lainie to activism and emblazons her pain in headlines. In lesser hands, it could have turned out to be a cliched character, yet Lirio saves it through the sheer force of his charismatic personality. He and Warner mine the romantic undercurrents of the reporter/subject relationship without overplaying their hands. They have a strong connection, and you can feel it, especially in the scene where the State Department officer goes into a conniption. Catch, if you can, the quick flash of triumph that briefly passes through Lirio’s and Warner’s faces when Evans’s tough-as-nails caseworker goes ape-shit because our aggrieved Penelope went public with her story.
For almost the entirety of the play, actor Curran Connor underplays the tough part of Michael. Portraying an American professor held hostage in a dark room in Beirut, Connor does not resort to blazing theatrics or obvious sentimentality, and he should be commended for it. It’s a stubborn choice, and you can argue that perhaps he could have shaded it with more anger or torment or physical pain, but his rooted performance chimes with Richards’s sensitive (and arguably too-dutiful, for the reasons stated above) staging of Blessing’s riveting play. Michael Wells is only a pawn, the lowest in a factious and fractious chain of America’s geopolitical marsh in the Middle East.
What’s worth celebrating here in Diverse City’s revival of Two Rooms is this: It reminds us of how one thoughtful American writer put the full weight of his dramatic talents to give a clear, anguished voice to those hostages who did not survive their unimaginable ordeals. Think of Two Rooms in light of where we are at this moment in U.S. history. Osama Bin Laden is dead. And yet what will it take to acknowledge that those still missing in Iraq and Afghanistan (and, in a different context, Syria) are not forgotten and that we as a nation still remember? – randy gener, in the theater of One World
Divere City Theater Company
Directed by Jamie Richards.
A matinee performance has been added for this Saturday, August 18th @ 2PM
Features Curran Connor, Dawn Evans, Victor Lirio and Bree Michael Warner
Set & Lighting Design: Maruti Evans
Sound Design: Elizabeth Rhodes
Costume Design: Arnulfo Maldonado
Associate Producer: Jo Macaldo
Asst. Director: Kathryn Bancroft
Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
Tickets are $19.25 and can be purchased via Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
For more information on Diverse City Theater Company, visit http://www.diversecitytheater.org
- Performance review | Diverse City Theater’s nervy revival of Lee Blessing’s “Two Rooms” gives voice to voiceless (theaterofoneworld.org)
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- Ten Patriotic Country Songs For The Fourth Of July (thenew1037.cbslocal.com)