Count your Blessings

Two Rooms

By Lee Blessing
Directed by Chad Auchincloss
ShelshUck Productions
New York Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

The stage, covered in what looked like featureless cheesecloth, represented the room where Lebanese terrorists have imprisoned American hostage Michael Wells (Robert LaVelle). It was also his room at home, which his wife Lainie (Krista Smith) has emptied and keeps apart while she waits for his return. She is visited by a State Department employee, Ellen Van Oss (Barbara Clark), and a reporter, Walker Harris (Donato Lemmo).

Van Oss and Harris spend part of the play battling for Lainie's soul, though the struggle is one-sided (she gives in to Harris's blandishments and goes public with complaints about State's handling of the hostage crisis). The conflict is mostly schematic, a dramaturgical device, though it sparked some good moments, especially for Lainie and Van Oss. The story came alive in the verbal and theatrical poetry sparked by Lainie and Michael's yearning to be back together.

Lainie and Michael are both hostages, in a sense, and spend much of their time in fantasy. Eventually their fantasies merge, and each is physically present in the other's cell. This theatrical metaphor, in which yearning transcends physical bonds, lifted the play from the mundane to the spiritual.

The power of obsession even reaches to Van Oss, who has conversations with Michael in her own dreams. When he asks whether he is the only hostage for whom she is responsible, she tells him, "The State Department is very big. Other hostages are dreamed about by others." Such moments of wit ("Without hope there can be no foreign policy") are rare in a script encumbered by lines such as "If Earth is our Mother then our Father is War." Blessing is best when matching the lyrical to the dramatic, as in a story told by Lainie, an ornithologist, about how the cuckoo's anatomy represents Fate.

Everyone gave at least solid performances, though Mr. LaVelle and Ms. Smith had the most to work with and showed good chemistry in their scenes together. The former offered a wide and convincing physical range, from vomiting to bliss. The latter covered as wide an emotional range, especially as she got to play off all three other characters, singly or in combinations. Ms. Clark played the tight-lipped junior bureaucrat to a T, with room left over for irony and sympathy. Mr. Lemmo's performance, while solid, fell victim to a one-dimensional role as written (in real life, reporters struggle hard not to become advocates of victims. Harris turns overnight into Lainie's press agent).The many scene transitions - potentially deadly in a play with so many blackouts - moved smoothly.

General lighting (Jorge Boetto) was provided by four spotlights, covered with frosted gel, directly over the stage. The effect covered the stage all right, but it still left faces in shadow much of the time, which was fine for the prison scenes but cried out for some contrast in the scenes at home. The rest of the lighting was provided by a variety of spotlights, which heightened the play's claustrophobia. There was also a slide show of Michael's photos of Beirut, which was more effective when it stayed in focus, and videotapes of rioting Lebanese that set the scene. Costumes (uncredited), provided some appropriate changes of suits for Ms. Clark, from dark gray to blue to hawkish red. (Set design, Mr. Auchincloss.)

This was an intimate and powerful debut by a company well worth watching.

Box Score:

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

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Copyright 1998 John Chatterton