Next Theatre Company
Throughout Two Rooms I was reminded of a debate I had in Israel with a diverse group of people from many countries. At the time, the mid-80s, three Israeli soldiers had been caught behind enemy lines in Lebanon, and Israel was negotiating an exchange: in return for these three prisoners, it was being asked to release 1,100 prisoners from Israeli jails. The group was discussing the wisdom of such a decision; the only people who opposed the exchange were Americans. They believed, as I did, that complying with such excessive demands opens the door to unlimited escalation of terrorism. All the others, from smaller countries, saw the hostages in more human terms--not as political pawns but as someone's father or son or brother. It's an enormous cultural difference.
Playwright Lee Blessing criticizes the detached high-mindedness typical of Americans in Two Rooms, an engaging drama about a hostage situation. Each of Blessing's four characters represents a different point of view. Michael is an American being held hostage in Lebanon, and he's just trying to survive, holding onto his humanity day by day. His wife, Lainie, is another victim who refuses to give in to discouragement. She fights two battles: the need to keep hope alive despite the anguish of separation, and the political business of getting her husband back. The two available methods of obtaining Michael's freedom are represented by Ellen, a State Department official, and Walker, a newspaper journalist. The State Department tells Lainie to keep a low profile, given the delicate situation, and to trust the government experts. Walker proposes speaking out and allowing public sentiment to goose the government into action.
Through these characters Blessing explores both the policies and the emotions involved in an ongoing predicament. The playwright does have a bias toward action, but he is remarkably evenhanded in pointing out the logic and motivations on both sides. As Blessing says, "There is no right answer. Or no easy answer. Or no noncomplex answer."
The issues and facts are intriguing, and Blessing offers several insights into our complex arrangements with the Middle East. But he's best at exposing the humanity behind the politics--his play about arms negotiations and Soviet relations, A Walk in the Woods, is brilliant. And it's the emotion, which we Americans tend to overlook in discussing hostage deals, that gives Two Rooms its power.
The story, a simple one, belongs to Lainie. She is back in the United States after an exhausting exploration of diplomatic channels in the effort to get her husband released. She is now willing to rely on weekly visits from the State Department for her information, but she's found a way to make Michael a continuing physical presence in her life: she converts his study into an exact replica of the room in which he's being held. Here she can sense his experiences, even sometimes see and talk to him because their bond is so strong. (Most of the action takes place in Michael's cell or its double.) But when the journalist, Walker Harris, enters her life, Lainie starts to believe that her silent pain is futile; he talks her into going public with her story. Publicity brings new problems, not the least of them alienation from the State Department, her only source of information. In the end, Lainie's grief turns to despair when she realizes that everyone is truly doing his or her best and it's just not enough.
The rawness of Lainie and Michael's emotional trials and the way Lainie is manipulated, with the best intentions, by both the government and the media bring ethical questions to the surface: at the same time, Blessing taps the barely concealed passion in all the characters. Next Theatre seems afraid of these volatile emotions, however, and bathes its production of Two Rooms in bland sentimentality. Robert G. Smith's set and lighting design are simple and unpretentious, but their cleanness and sterility don't fit with the harsh ordeal--a dirtier, more chaotic look might have suited the action better. Smith's sound design is surprisingly serene and sweet, more evocative of meditation than the quiet desperation that fuels Two Rooms. The (uncredited) costumes are the most sterile design element. Michael's neutral outfit might be explained by his confinement, but Lainie's generically casual clothes tell us nothing except that she's informal. Walker's standard-issue dark suit is equally unenlightening, and Ellen's wrinkled linen skirt and beribboned white shirt actually seem at odds with her hard-core bureaucratic character, making her appear more like a housewife than a government official.
Under Harriet Spizziri's direction, the cast provides solid but very muted performances. Will Casey's Michael is particularly low-key--Casey is charming and deliberate, but we never see what kindles Michael's spirit, a spirit strong enough to keep hope alive. This is particularly distressing during Michael's final monologue, a deeply moving recitation of sensory images to which he clings during a ride to his final, unknown destination. Lee Guthrie portrays Lainie with intelligence and restraint. She comes off as a lovely woman, a nice person and a good neighbor, but not as someone obsessed with her husband's situation. And Guthrie fails to make Lainie's motivations clear, especially when her character goes into long metaphorical stories that compare birds' behavior to her own situation. The point of these stories is never apparent, and there's no urgency in her telling of them. We never find out what makes her character tick, either.
Christine Adaire seems to have looked to her costume rather than the script for her character. Adaire's Ellen is a buffoon, full of overblown quirks and silly pretensions. Adaire comes off more like an Avon lady than a devoted bureaucrat.
The only actor to capture the passions of the play is Matt DeCaro. He gives the ambitious newspaperman just the right combination of aggression and compassion: Walker both honestly befriends Lainie and exploits her for the big story. DeCaro's Walker is utterly human; his lively blend of the good and bad in Walker gives us an idea of the complexities available in Blessing's script.
After the performance I attended, David Jacobsen, a former hostage, spoke and answered questions. His manner was dry and academic, not unlike the tone of this production, and some of his viewpoints were disturbingly hawkish. But few failed to be moved by Jacobsen's ordeal and his commitment to exposing the political realities of hostage situations. Jacobsen said he was quite touched by Two Rooms, that it's a play that needs to be seen. He's right--Lee Blessing's play heightens and explores the passions also aroused by Jacobsen's talk. Unfortunately, though, Next Theatre Company's well-intentioned production flattens them out.