In Tibet Does Not Exist, an exiled Tibetan monk takes refuge for a few days at the home of a Yale University economics professor. In between lectures and cocktail parties, he tries to bridge cultural gaps between his country and ours. Unfortunately, his theoretical infrastructure combined with his early 90s footwear choice of all-white high-tops makes the whole thing less than believable.
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
Written and originally produced in 1992, Don Thompson’s Tibet Does Not Exist explores some very loaded issues surrounding international policy and religious tolerance. The exiled Lama Buton Rinpoche (James Quinones) finds himself at Yale University, and is invited by the dean to take refuge with Professor Walsh (Scott David Nogi). While this beginning shows potential to realistically and believably confront cultural generalizations, it does not develop strongly enough to carry the play. Thompson falls back too many times on generic and stilted language from his American characters, such as their surprise in Rinpoche’s knowledge of Western practices during a dinner party or his recognition of pop culture references. During the second act two students drop by clad in torn stonewashed jeans and flannel shirts down to their knees, begging Rinpoche to disclose the secret to reaching Nirvana. Their imposing eagerness translates as naïveté instead of sincerity, and the repetition of such scenarios throughout the play magnify stereotypes instead of break them down. It also creates a glossing over of the grittiness that lies at the heart of the play, and the result is blatant condescension.
When psychology Professor Trish Taylor (Sara Thigpen) returns to Walsh’s home after hearing Rinpoche speak, she is truly shaken at how war-torn Tibet is. Back at Professor Walsh’s she all-but-tearfully expresses her outright surprise that “not even Dan Rather” accurately covered this tragedy. While Rinpoche’s teachings are well-scripted, well-balanced, and overall Zen-like, their overwhelming impact on his listeners makes the whole thing a little hard to swallow. In a matter of days Rinpoche has them reconsidering their materialistic lifestyles and belief systems surrounding religion and marriage. Thompson lays the repetition of such self-loathing concern on so thick that it can’t be taken seriously, especially from Ivy League professors. To compensate, Thompson takes humorous detours throughout the play, and in the hands of impressive actors like Oliver Conant, internal conflict actually arises from that comedy.
Quinones, on the other hand, a retired New York State Trooper, has difficulty bringing Rinpoche to life. It’s true that his modest tone and the slow, deliberate deliverance of his speeches help soften his imposing six-foot-two frame to that of a believably humble and non-threatening religious ambassador. And he’s got a magnetic presence that dominates every scene, even if he’s just sitting upstage. But looks can be deceiving (traces of his native Bronx can still be heard in his voice): his soft-spoken demeanor holds back passion, too, and he lacks a resonating conviction when speaking of the things he has seen and been through back in Tibet. Once again the humor in the script comes to the rescue and saves his performance, as his lighthearted and easygoing manner blend perfectly with subtle one-liners. During a game of chess in the second act, Conant’s character Professor Norman Levi asks Rinpoche, when did you learn to play chess so well?, to which he slyly responds, three lifetimes ago.
While Quinones’ portrayal of Rinpoche is stuck in low-gear, the exact opposite holds true for homestay host Professor Walsh (Scott David Nogi). Brilliant yet erratic, Nogi illuminates the stage as a divorced faux Brit who studied at Oxford before teaching at Yale. He rattles off rhetorical economic theory to anyone who will listen, and brings an impressive level of passion to the subject matter. Entrenched in the world he created for himself out of high-brow academia, his work is truly his life. After meeting Rinpoche, however, other areas of his life begin to surface as he begins severe introspection that helps him face personal and emotional elements of his past, such as the deterioration of his marriage.
Tibet Does Not Exist may be filled with inflated dialogue, but it does drive home the tragedy of genocide. However, it goes too far trying to turn this sense of morality and simple living as a means of guilting the audience into a series of bleeding heart knee-jerk reactions. In addition, embedding everything in an upper-echelon university creates an alienating friction. In this setting everyone but Rinpoche is just an ignorant Westerner, consumer-drive and apathetic. Without differentiating levels, it’s hard to argue America as the rescuing White Knight in the heat of international conflict, especially today. If director Pamela Butler had updated this piece to reflect current trends, it may have been easier to digest. Instead, the forced empathy and over-enthusiastic ideals foggily reminisce a time when he United Nations thrived and the United States government endorsed World Summits. Tibet Does Not Exist was written seventeen years ago, and has lost as much clout in that time as America: it is no longer a feisty Bengal tiger. It has returned as a docile American housecat.-------------------------------------------
Tibet Does Not Exist (1 hr. 30 minutes; one intermission)
Spoon Theater (38 West 38h Street, 5th Floor)
Tickets (866-811-4111): $18
Performances (through 4/26): 8pm