When the movie American Beauty was racking up all the awards a few months back, I kept saying, "Sure, it was well-done. But 'brilliant'? It didn't say anything that hasn't already been said." Quite a few films-as well as plays and novels-have dealt with the disillusionment and alienation felt by people once they have fulfilled the American Dream.
Now we can add Ralph Pezzullo's Spain to that "genre." This short play is like American Beauty as written by Sartre. Except here hell is not other people, but one other person: a female character named Clark, who knows all the protagonist's frustrations and challenges him to confront them.
The protagonist is a businessman named Joseph Putnam who awakens in an unfamiliar room with no recollection of how he got there. He does remember he had spent the evening drinking with colleagues at a strip club. In the room are a desk, a record player, a dressmaker's dummy, a poster of a bullfighter-and Clark, who is dressed in matador's attire. She immediately begins ordering Putnam around, and her admonitions induce Putnam to reveal the skeletons in his closet: his violent hatred of the woman who superseded him at work, a stagnant marriage, the emotional repression that was encouraged by his mother.
Is this just a surreal vision of a psychotherapy session? Or a nightmare of Putnam's? Considering the play from Clark's viewpoint would favor the first interpretation (she even takes out a notebook and starts jotting in it); from Putnam's point of view, the second description seems accurate. Yet several episodes in the play suggest that, like American Beauty, it's a warning about the risks of denial and pent-up anger and of sacrificing self-actualization for materialism. This interpretation is supported by the optimistic ending-in which Clark tells Putnam he should "create...create the world"-along with her encouraging him earlier in the play to paint in an uninhibited, random fashion.
Pezzullo's script seems deliberately ambiguous as to its intention, which may be the approach that fans of such existential drama enjoy. They may also get a kick out of his interpolating Spain into Putnam's plight-most likely as a metaphor for his wild side. However, for those who prefer their theatre straight up, Spain could be talky and ponderous. It's painless in terms of length-running less than an hour-but it doesn't seem entirely fresh. The verbal pas de deux, the idea of trapping characters inside a space, and the debunking of the American Dream have all been done before. In addition, some of the dialogue-with its coarse language and misogynistic overtones-could be hard to take.
Technically, the production was admirable. Kevin Mitchell Martin fit the role of Putnam physically and acted downtrodden without being pathetic. Julie Kay Swift's portrayal of Clark was satisfactory, although one could imagine a more-mannered interpretation. Mark Marcante's dingy set and Yoshikazu Tatsuno's lighting did much to convey the mood. The uncredited sound effects-dripping water and Spanish music-also enhanced the atmosphere.
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Copyright 2000 Adrienne Onofri