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Friday, June 29, 2007

Politics of Passion

In Politics of Passion, playwright Minghella sets out to prove silence is golden. Too bad he's got such a stunning way with words, or he might actually have won his point...

Laren Turner Kiel and MacCleod Andrews in Hang Up,
the first of three plays featured in Poltics of Poetics.

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Reviewed by Cait Weiss

Talk is cheap. That seems to be the message behind most of Anthony Minghella’s brilliant vignettes – everyone has something to say, but no one hears it the way it’s intended. Actions may speak louder than words, but, in this world at least, the silences practically bellow.

The Potomac Theatre Project’s production of Politics of Passion, a series of short plays written by Minghella (best known, perhaps, as the screenwriter and director of The English Patient and Cold Moutain), consists of three short plays and (miracle of miracles!) no intermission. It’s a tight, compelling and utterly enjoyable ninety minutes of verbosity in vain, and, under the smart and economical direction of Cheryl Faraone, the production is pretty much all you can ask from a night out at the theater.

The first of the three plays, Hang Up, follows a couple attempting to withstand the trials and tribulations of the eleventh plague, also known as The Long Distance Relationship. MacLeod Andrews, as He, is fabulous – all the minute frustrations of love via phone line come through in his slightly strained syllables and wistful pauses. As She, played by Lauren Turner Kiel, slowly breaks his heart, Andrews' body language alone contains the constant inarticulate debate of mistrust, hope, longing and frustration that his words can never accurately communicate. With staging reminiscent of the young romantics’ window scene in Our Town, Faraone replaces the Stage Manager with a dial tone. In Hang Up, Minghella touchingly refits courtship into an environment of telephones, static and, above all, dropped connections.

In Truly, Madly, Deeply, a scene taken from Minghella’s film of the same name, distance is no longer the central tension; if anything here is making the characters uncomfortable, it’s proximity that’s the culprit. This short one act follows a couple on the rare first date where awkwardness is replaced by the purely ridiculous. With Julia Proctor and Michael Wrynn Doyle as Nina and Mark, respectively, the scene takes off without much explanation – she is rushing off to another appointment as he waits with roses in the middle of a city park. We soon learn the two were supposed to have their first date, but she’s been called away. A bit overbearing in his own bear-hug self-help kind of way, Mark eventually gets the girl, if not to have and to hold, at least to open up a little before she leaves. He wins her over, oddly enough, by requiring her to hop on one foot while she tells him about herself. The couple is communicating here, but not through their words; instead, their bond is clearly based in the absurdity of action, not the banal recounting of their personal histories. With Truly, Madly, Deeply, Minghella reveals once again the complete irrelevancy of language to communication; this time, though, we get a silver lining – the whole world of hope held in a single silly hop.

The final segment of Politics of Passion, Cigarettes and Chocolate, literalizes Minghella’s theories on the value of silence. Gemma, played by the beautifully stone-faced Cassidy Freeman, gives up language for reasons we don’t learn until the very end. The play begins with a series of phone messages from her friends, Lorna, Alistair, and Gail, and her lover, Rob. As Gemma gradually recedes into her own wordless calm, the other characters can’t help but be pulled in after her. It’s as if silence is a black hole, an abyss into something deeper than words can offer, but an abyss with an enormous gravitational pull. Everyone who comes near Gemma’s silence finds themselves confessing. By seeking solace in the inarticulate, Gemma is only met with more words.

The cast of Cigarettes and Chocolate is wonderfully strong – with James Matthew Ryan (Rob) and Jessie Hooker (Alistair) as standouts. Perhaps Ryan’s performance is too much of a standout, though. By the end of Cigarettes and Chocolate, Minghella seems to want us to side with Gemma, to see silence as a revolution in and of itself, to see language as the weapon in petty conflict. However, with Ryan’s emanating intelligence, his glib alternation of half-snear and half-smile, and his sheer stage presence, we see the glory and glimmer in the well-placed word. Yes, Gemma has her silence, and all the power that refusal to speak contains. But in the end, silence is just that – a refusal, a negative, a lack.

As much as Minghella wants to preach against language, his form under cuts his function and, with characters like Rob pulsing with both poetics and passion (even if he can only speak with tongue partially jammed in cheek), the reality behind these relationships becomes clear: language is not litter piled upon an eternity of hush. Instead, silence is a language in and of itself, as messy and deceptive as speech. But at least the words can entertain you.

That’s more than you can say for ninety minutes of silence, intermission or no.

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Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue)
Tickets ( 1-800-838-3006): $18.00
Performances: June 20th through July 14th, Tue 6/26 at 8pm, Fri 6/29 at 8pm, Sat 6/30 at 3pm; Mon 7/2 at 8pm; Tues 7/3 at 8pm; Thu 7/5 at 8pm; Sun 7/8 at 3pm and 7:30pm, Tue 7/10 at 8pm; Sat 7/14 at 3pm and 8pm.

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