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February 13, 2009

TT: Land of nightmares

I'm back in New York and making the theatrical rounds after a long absence. Today's Wall Street Journal drama column is accordingly devoted to three off-Broadway productions, Lynn Nottage's Ruined, the Classic Stage Company's production of Uncle Vanya, and the Irish Repertory Theatre's revival of Brian Friel's Aristocrats. Here's an excerpt.

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Lynn Nottage writes political plays--or, rather, plays about people whose lives have been touched by politics. This crucial distinction is what makes her a playwright rather than a propagandist, and "Ruined," in which she shows us what things have come to in the bloody, brutal land that dares to call itself the Democratic Republic of Congo, leaves no doubt that the author of "Intimate Apparel" and "Crumbs from the Table of Joy" is one of the best playwrights that we have.

RUINED.jpgInspired by Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage," "Ruined" is set in a small-town brothel run by Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona), a ruthless businesswoman who is as hard as nails and as coarse as rock salt. Though her homeland has been reduced to the state of nature by the insane nihilism of Central African politics, she keeps the war of all against all at bay by insisting that her customers check their bullets at the door. To that door comes Sophie (Condola Rashad), a homeless teenager who has been "ruined," meaning that her genitalia have been mutilated by rapists. Unable to prostitute herself, Sophie instead keeps Mama Nadi's books, sings for her supper (very beautifully, too) and dreams of a day when the "bush laws" that have laid waste to her battered flesh will somehow be repealed.

All this is tough and truthful stuff, and it is to Ms. Nottage's infinite credit that she does not present it as an illustrated lecture but instead uses the terrible realities of Congolese life as the raw material of an immensely compelling human drama about the lives and hopes of her characters, each of whom is portrayed not as a political cartoon but as a recognizable person....

Anton Chekhov has been all over town this season. First came the recent Broadway production of "The Seagull," then the Bridge Project's "Cherry Orchard," and now Classic Stage Company's "Uncle Vanya." Like its predecessors, this "Vanya" is a flawed enterprise whose defects arise from what I assume to be a specifically directorial decision: The acting is jarringly contemporary, the décor unabashedly traditional. Denis O'Hare's flip, whiny Vanya could have stepped straight off the set of a Woody Allen movie, while Peter Sarsgaard's blasé Astrov sounds like John Malkovich. Austin Pendleton, the director, is a gifted artist (he wrote "Orson's Shadow") who knows his Chekhov, but I can't see how the performances he's drawn from his equally gifted cast are supposed to hook up with Santo Loquasto's old-fashioned country-house set and Suzy Benzinger's pre-revolutionary costumes....

Not only has Brian Friel adapted several of Chekhov's plays, but he's written one of his own. "Aristocrats" is just the sort of play that the master himself might have penned had he passed his youth in 20th-century Ireland instead of 19th-century Russia. A near-plotless 1979 study of a family whose once-wealthy members have receded into shabby gentility, "Aristocrats" is one of Mr. Friel's most complex portraits of how the Irish grappled with--or tried to ignore--the coming of modernity. That makes the play a natural for the Irish Repertory Theatre, my favorite Off-Broadway company, and Charlotte Moore's staging is an admirably straightforward piece of work that makes its dramatic points with discreet clarity....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 13, 2009 12:00 AM

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