Sunday, February 17, 2008

Two Rooms

Compelling, outstanding ‘TWO ROOMS’ at Charenton/CPT

‘TWO ROOMS,’ now in joint production by Charenton Theatre and Cleveland Public Theatre, is both a love story and a debate. Set in the turbulent 1980s, author Lee Blessing’s taut psychodrama was deservedly named by Time Magazine as "Best Play of the Year" in 1988.

The action switches between two stark rooms. One is the windowless cubicle in Beirut, Lebanon where hostage Michael Wells, a history professor at that city’s American University, lies blindfolded as a captive of an unknown militant Islamic group. The other room is Michael’s study in the United States. As months turn into years and her husband's fate hangs precariously, Mike's wife, Lanie, strips the room to the bare walls in order to feel closer to him and his plight. For her, a thin mat she has dragged into his office represents "all the corners of the room," and where she imagines she can speak with, and even touch, her missing husband.

In this staging, the same space serves for both rooms and is the locale for not only the imaginary conversations between the hostage and his wife, but also for the real talks between Lanie, a reporter and a State Department official.

Walker is the reporter. At the start he appears to be someone who hopes to develop the situation into a major personal accomplishment, maybe a journey to a Pulitzer Prize. Bby the end, we are not sure. Ellen is a coolly, efficient, dispassionate, State Department representative whose task is to keep Lanie off-balance and uninformed of the political machinations which include using her husband as a pawn.

Eventually, the wife speaks out against the government policy and in so doing triggers a series of events that brings the play to its unnerving conclusion.

The script is penetrating and powerful in examining the perspective of individuals , of the public, and of the government. In the end there are no winners, only losers, and the sense of futility and despair that comes when we realize that logic, compassion and fairness are meaningless when dealing with those who would commit barbarous acts with a totally different definition of what it means to be ethnical, and a government that apparently has no conscience or morals of its own.

Charenton’s production, under the keen directorial guidance of Jacqui Loewy, is outstanding. The deliberately slow pace makes the pain of not knowing excruciating. The cast is clear in their motivations, the messages of the story are well etched. Everything, from Michel Ostaszewski’s projections, to Nathan Tulenson’s sound effects, to the sparse set, works.

Jeffrey Grover is chilling in his controlled characterization of Michael. As the play progresses Grover’s eyes become deader and deader. By the end, when he matter-of-factly explains his fate, his eyes are hollow and lifeless.

Sarah Morton, as Lanie, holds her emotions in perfect check. The characterization develops clearly and her frustration and angst are well honed. In the hands of a lesser actress the believability level would have been destroyed as it would have been so easy to overact the role.

Mary Alice Beck is chilling as the State Department official who shows no emotion, is programmed to act like a robot, and is so loyal to the government that she almost appears to be brainwashed.

Though he is quite acceptable as Walker, Jason Markouc sometimes loses contact with the character. Some of his lines sound automatic, rather than meaningful.

The production is being staged in Cleveland Public Theatre’s newest performance space, the former bookstore next to CPT. Though the space is intimate and very appropriate for ‘TWO ROOMS,’ it also has several handicaps. The street noises come through the entrance doors, the applause and laughter from the adjoining theatres leak through, and the sound of patrons coming to and exiting from the second floor Levine Theatre is distracting.

Capsule judgement: Charenton/CPT’s two hour production of ‘TWO ROOMS’ is one of the local season’s highlights. The production deserves sold out houses. Because of the subject matter, don’t assume the show is depressing. It will stimulate the senses and reveal a great deal of the “real” world of politics and the present state of the world.