Déjà vu all over again

Two Rooms

By Lee Blessing
Directed by by Steve Bebout
Propinquity Productions
Atlantic Theater ("Atlantic 253")
Non-union production (closed)
Review by David Mackler

Lee Blessing wrote Two Rooms after the Lebanese hostage crisis of the 1980s. Terrorism, kidnapping, and political machinations are all part of the story of Michael, a professor at American University in Beirut who is kidnapped by extremists, and his wife Lainie, who creates her own solitude physically and emotionally back home as she struggles to deal with her husband's disappearance.

Parallels to a post September 11th world are inescapable, yet the play doesn't resound with meaning or foresight. While Blessing couldn't have envisioned that recent devastation, this production, directed by Steve Bebout, seemed shallow, and a little self-satisfied. It was performed with fervor, though varying degrees of success, by Guy Camilleri, Christine Fall, Matty D. Stuart, and Katie Northlich, but speechifying under the guise of revealing emotion is not a substitute for character. Valid points are made and the subject is rife with tension, but the heavy-handed dramatics only diluted it all.

Where do a reporter's loyalties lie -- with his subject, or his reporting duty? When does a government official's responsibility cross over from doing the right thing to protecting the government? And what is the "right thing" anyway? Is it better to speak out or keep quiet? In a no-win situation, why not nuke 'em all and let God sort it out (as a recent T-shirt had it)? When does helpfulness become imperialism? In an unusual twist for a seemingly liberal-leaning play it was easier to connect with Ellen (Northlich), the representative from the Secretary of State assigned to observe/pacify Lainie than with Walker (Stuart), the reporter who befriends Lainie and wants to publicize her husband's plight. But this was also chiefly because Northlich gave a terrifically crisp performance as the loyal government lackey who may, just may have a heart, while Stuart stiffly delivered right-to-know arguments interspersed with I'm-on-your-side-the-story-is-secondary enticements. With his motives both black-and-white and cloudy, it might have made for a more interesting character if he'd tried to seduce her either mentally or physically, but neither the script, the direction, nor the acting went there.

Christine Fall was able to convey the many layers of despair that Lainie goes through, and made her interesting as a character. In her desperate attempt to bond with her missing husband it made sense for her to empty his study of furniture to replicate his incarceration. Her swings from hopefulness to despair were devastatingly real. As her husband, Camilleri was saddled with monologues directed to his wife, but he made being handcuffed and blindfolded more than just a theatrical conceit -- it was viscerally uncomfortable to watch.

But it was in its production values that the real points of Two Rooms were made. The lighting (by Alexandra Carlson) isolated characters at the same time it created landscapes on the two screens that constituted David Rigler's set. It was when the realization hit that these two screens looked disarmingly, dismayingly, like the twin towers that any sense of the real intended meaning hit home. It was far more effective than most of the sermonic words of the play itself.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Sets: 2
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2002 David Mackler