A MAP OF THE WORLD
Ibis Theatre Company
at the Granville Avenue Presbyterian Church
In playwright David Hare's own estimation, A Map of the World is "a play which argues with itself, a play full of worry and confusion." At first it struck me, in a generic way, as a play of ideas; but now that I've wrestled with it, I take it more personally, as a play of beliefs. Because as the arguments posed by its characters ravel and unravel, I feel that the playwright, the characters, and especially the audience question what we believe. That is, are we simply creatures of argument, poseurs? Do we even know what we believe? And if we do, do we have the conviction to act on those beliefs?
But before this gets too abstract, let's bring it down to earth. The play is set in Bombay at a 1978 UNESCO conference on world poverty. One of the principal speakers is Victor Mehta, a satirical novelist who is highly critical of the United Nations, or, as he calls it, the "palace of lies." Mehta himself was born in poverty in India but was educated in England. He returns now to Bombay, his reputation preceding him, in a state of elitist zeal. He is there to expose UNESCO and, in general, to vent his outrage against the absurdly patronizing attitude the West has taken toward the third world. What upsets him most--far more than poverty itself--is the hypocrisy and self-deception of a liberal bureaucracy. For example, "Instead of sending the third world doctors and mechanics, we now send them hippies and Marxist thinkers and animal conservationists and ecologists and wandering fake Zen Buddhist students, who hasten to reassure the illiterate that theirs is a superior life to that of the West." So much for UNESCO, the Peace Corps, and Dian Fossey.
Yet before Mehta reaches the podium, he's cut off in the lobby. He's asked--actually it's more of a demand--to preface his speech with an introduction that identifies him as a writer of fiction, which, "by its very nature, must always be different from fact." The author of this introduction is Stephen Andrews, a young reporter for a left-wing English magazine. Further complicating matters is an attractive, semieducated globetrotter from Westchester named Peggy Whitton, who has an affair with Mehta. Whitton, an inexplicable sort of free spirit, arranges a private debate to settle the dispute between Mehta and Andrews, promising to sleep with the winner.
As you can imagine, this is a complex play, and you have to race to keep up with it. Notice, for instance, that we've already left the issue of poverty behind. Everything happens in the wings, off the UNESCO stage, which is itself pathetically remote from the starving people in the streets of Bombay. And with Whitton's intervention, the debate between Mehta and Andrews becomes a sexual contest. Nevertheless, Mehta, a profoundly funny satirist, launches into the debate with his characteristic reductio ad absurdum argument. And Andrews, suddenly discovering the conviction of his beliefs, retaliates with an ad hominem attack on Mehta, accusing him of putting his "individual integrity" above the suffering of the poor. But really, it's not world poverty that's the issue here, but rather the more personal issue of how we draw, and color in, our map of the world. The truth, it seems, is a matter of perspective.
To further this point, Hare restlessly shifts the perspective of his play. In the second scene a film crew appears, and we discover that what we witnessed in the first scene, in Bombay, is a movie. Not only that, the movie is loosely based on a novel by Victor Mehta, which is based on real people and events surrounding Mehta's visit to the UNESCO conference back in 1978. So, is it live, or is it Memorex? Hare leaves this point deliberately obscure, and plays upon it. For instance, in various scenes, Mehta and Whitton visit the film set and dispute the way their characters are being portrayed, which adds yet another level of argument to this story within a movie within a novel within a play.
What happens, or happened, therefore, is less important than what it means. So, what Hare does is worry and confuse the audience to the point where we say fuck it and concentrate on what these people are saying. It's an effective strategy, maybe not in the dramatic sense, but it did get me to wonder if my politics and values and beliefs are just excuses or whether they really mean something. I'm left with that. I can't say I understand the conclusion of the play, but I'm provoked by the problem the play sets before me. And it's exhilarating to be challenged in the theater to think for a change, instead of being told what to think.
But don't get the impression that A Map of the World is an SAT for the ideologically confused. It's painless and brilliantly funny, particularly when people argue. Even the film actors argue: one actor, working on a crossword puzzle, asks for a seven-letter word for "plague of the earth" beginning with a "Z," and another actor suggests "Zionism." But the moral outrage erupting from this can of worms is rendered ridiculously moot when a third actor discovers a misspelled entry in the puzzle. The word actually starts with an "S." Not exactly Laurel and Hardy, but the weird sort of humor that elicits gutsy blurts of laughter from isolated pockets in the audience.
The production itself is surprisingly clean and professional. Surprising, because Interplay is a new company and this is their first production. Surprising also, because it takes crisp direction and ensemble acting to flush the living beast from the thicket of this philodrama. Bruce Burgun, as Victor Mehta, is sharp, confident, and amusingly overbearing. And it's Burgun's strong performance that anchors the whole play. Mark Mysliwiec is an excellent foil as Stephen Andrews, a nerd savant with the mannerisms of an English twit. Jan Lucas is less than believable as Peggy Whitton, the temptress from Westchester--a difficult role to get a handle on in any case. Overall, the supporting cast varies from marginally competent to inspired, and, thanks to David Perkovich's direction, they react rather than act, making scenes instead of torturing the audience with vain performances.
I like this play, although I have to agree with Hare that he "was trying to do too many things at once." I'm not that familiar with his work, except for his films, Wetherby (which I also highly recommend) and Plenty. But I sense a fidgety quality in his writing, a cynical yet not quite hopeless search for meaning in life. As Mehta says, "The act of writing is the act of discovering what you believe." He makes me feel that if I sat down and drew my own map of the world, I might find my place in it.
I can't say I'm a big fan of Moliere's plays. They just don't appeal to my sense of humor. I can see what other people see in them--sort of tutti frutti comedies of manners that, depending on the production, may or may not have some contemporary relevance. Also, there's the matter of Moliere's verse, which can be fun in a twisted Hallmark card way, yet is almost always ruined in translation. So, I'm not going to slobber all over the great Moliere, but at least I respect him, from a distance anyway.
Which is more than I can say about this production of Scapin. It's one thing to update a play, and I have no problem with setting Scapin on an ocean liner in the 20s. Fine. It's a stupid idea, like most modern-dress classics, but so what? Still it's an entirely different thing when it comes to following through on the adaptation. There's more to it than dressing up like a flapper and delivering lines like, "Kiddo, how'd you like to be a mobster?" You'd have to, it would seem, have some sense of the style of an era. I mean why update a play three centuries if you don't know anything more about the 20s than you do about the court of Louis XIV?
So--the hell with Moliere--what is this turkey anyway? It's a community theater/community college type of production. Call it stylized, or declamatory camp, or a farce of a farce, or amateur night, or whatever you want. Mainly, it's a bunch of performers, whose incipient talents range from stillborn to not-yet-ready-to-merit-a-paycheck, who attempt to re-create stereotypes drawn from vague memories of old movies: a gum-chewing chorus girl, a rich dragon lady, some impossibly pure young lovers, and a few more. These stereotypes are badly drawn, even though they're all too familiar, and a drunk at a costume party could do a better job of it.
There are a few sunny touches, not enough to salvage the production, but surely worth mentioning. Hyacinthe's entrance is hysterical. She glides blissfully through the audience, consorts with imaginary sparrows, and rushes sexlessly to her young lover's embrace like Snow White on Valium. A great entrance, but Rhonda Muzak (as Hyacinthe) has nowhere to go with it. There are some funny lines, too, like Scapin's "If life's a roller coaster, I want to ride in the front car." But that's about it, folks. The rest is your basic commedia dell'arte adapted to French farce and mangled into its present shape. At which point it's impossible to take joy in the reunion of broken families, the triumph of love, or the larceny of the wily servant. Tant pis. Quel dommage.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Kolack.