A MAP OF THE WORLD
The Windy City Theater
Like its central character Victor Mehta, A Map of the World is exceedingly difficult, ferociously eloquent, and oddly sexy. Like Mehta, an Indian novelist, it delights in the exchange of ideas and passionate debate but shies away from any real action. And no one seems more aware of this than playwright David Hare. He gives us a director of action pictures struggling to pump drama into a film version of Mehta's book. The book itself is a fictionalized account of what went on at a world poverty conference several years earlier; and so those events (which the play travels back in time to describe) are seen through the filters of several shifting layers of reality.
At the conference in Bombay, Mehta clashes with left-wing journalist Stephen Andrews. He is also told by officials he must qualify certain remarks made in his fiction (he calls socialism "the luxury of the rich" and ridicules Madam Mao) or risk jeopardizing the conference; but he refuses, seeing himself as a "lone voice" pointing out the absurd truths of human nature through his fiction.
"Isn't all fiction distortion?" he is challenged. Meanwhile throughout the play time and space shift without warning to the set of the film--the two characters we thought were Andrews and Mehta turn out to be actors portraying them. The events of the conference are suddenly in danger of being distorted beyond recognition.
A Map of the World also addresses poverty, Western arrogance and guilt, sexual politics, and India itself--described by Mehta as "Men in rooms arguing, people in the streets dying." It might seem like a bit much, particularly since these issues are not presented so much dramatically as dialectically. The zealous British journalist Andrews argues for idealism ("You will never understand any struggle until you take part in it") while Mehta responds with accurate cynicism ("The poor are a prop you use only to express dissatisfaction with yourself"). The introduction of an attractive American actress adds to the men's rivalry, but this is a play that relies mostly on talk, and Hare weaves such a witty, fierce tapestry of rhetoric that it is almost impossible to let the ear rest for fear of falling behind.
The snare here is obvious--how can a play about the exchange of ideas be made active, as interesting to the eye as it is to the ear and the intellect? This production, directed by David Perkovich, doesn't always solve that problem; it seems to be in awe of Hare, presenting his dialogue without much of a personal vision. Perkovich's staging is occasionally wooden, rarely inspiring. People sit until it is their time to speak; those who are listening often do so with superhuman concentration.
Perkovich makes good use of the transitions to the movie set. The curtain at the back of set designer Rebecca Hamlin's richly detailed Bombay hotel lounge is swept back to reveal the unadorned depths of the theater space, which doubles nicely as a soundstage. But the frantic bustle of moviemaking inevitably gives way to the visually static debate sessions between Andrews and Mehta.
Luckily these roles have been well cast; Perkovich and his actors give us human beings instead of ideas masquerading as people. Christopher Royal as Andrews is all edgy passion wed uneasily with impeccable British decorum, a likable idealist who regrets that in order to win any debate with Mehta he must attack the man and not the man's argument. As Mehta, Andrew J. Turner is a mesmerizing rhetorician, prim and conservative in his movements (here Perkovich's stiff blocking is turned to an advantage), his arrogance obviously matched by his loneliness. Detailed performances like these don't come along every day--to watch these two spar is a delight.
Stephanie Ferrell as Peggy Whitton, the actress that both men want, is a warm if rather bland presence. Too much of her time is spent exuding calm sagacity; she lacks that element of sexual energy that the character is meant to use as both a weapon and a prize. This makes one of the central conflicts--who will win her affections in a formal debate--seem unimportant. The men are little help here; they seem more interested in besting each other than in winning Peggy. This may be a deliberate choice, but it flattens what little actual drama there is.
The production does have much to offer; the performances are never less than competent where they are not outstanding, and Hare's dense, difficult script is presented with intelligence if not imagination.