According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Two Rooms

Two Rooms explores the emotional trauma that ensues after an American is held hostage in Lebanon and his wife suffers in his absence, as the United States' government refuses to negotiate with his terrorists. But in New York's post-9/11 era, timing is still everything.

Reviewed by Meg van Huygen

Originally produced in 1988, Pulitzer nominee Lee Blessing's Two Rooms seems once again relevant, telling the perhaps-forgotten story of another terrorist conflict in the Middle East: Lebanon. Michael, an American teacher, has been held hostage by terrorists in Beirut for over a year; his wife, Lainie, agonizes at home, nursing her anger toward the government for doing so little for her husband. More specifically, Two Rooms tells the stories of the character's rooms: Michael's cell, where he sits blindfolded, and his home office, where Lainie keeps vigil for him. Imprisoned, Michael narrates his unwritten letters home between beatings, musing on what he would give for a window or to know what day it is. Back in the U.S., Lainie is harangued for interviews by both Walker, a charismatic news reporter, and Ellen, an icy, buttoned-down member of the State Department.

The rooms are constructed to show contrast, and though you would expect the torture cell to be a violent place, it is in fact the office that sees the most action. In attempting to deliver this, Angela Christian as Lainie can be a little much. It's nice that she respects her character's anguish so deeply, but her translation of Lainie's fiery, take-no-lip persona often comes off as shrill and caricatured. By the time Christian breaks down and shows Lainie’s vulnerability, we’re not sympathetic—we’re annoyed it took so long to get there. In sharp contrast, Michael Laurence, as a man dehumanized by torture, registers as human with his serene, almost defeated demeanor. It’s as though the unfamiliarity of the settings focuses his familiar humanity. Sadly and calmly, he makes us yearn along with him for the quiet office that Lainie shows us does not exist.

The dialogue is mostly political, of course, and gets dry early on, leaving director Patrick Flynn to try to enliven the simple two-rooms-in-one set. Patrick Boll as the reporter, Walker, helps with this—his interpretation of the role to be a possible seducer as well as interrogator opens up a sneaky romantic thread. As well, projected images of Lebanese women and children projected on the wall are a neat multimedia touch.

Two Rooms has been produced several times since the towers fell, and it’s no mystery why. But each new production cheapens the play: our concepts of the region and who terrorists are have changed since 1988; the words hostage and Middle East do not automatically make Two Rooms a better play, any more than a shirt becomes more useful when it has SpongeBob on it. Two Rooms may have once delivered the poignancy to which this cast aspires, but the more we learn about the reality of the Middle East, the more this production seems—like Michael—to be bouncing impossible wishes off the unresponsive walls of a windowless cell.

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