Jim Knable’s half-insufferable half-comedy, which MCC Theater just opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, attempts to address the debilitating nature of contemporary ennui inspired by America’s melting-pot mindset and flighty flaunting of romance. But in trying to make its points in a language at once magical, sparkling, and unpredictable, Spain too often lands in the ear and on the heart like the theatrical equivalent of Pig Latin. Given much of what floods the stage before intermission, an ifferentday anguagelay might actually not be a bad idea.
Repetitive, violent, and flat-out unfunny, the first act of Spain is one of the ugliest and most tedious I’ve seen in years. Little more than an hour-long ramble between Barbara (Annabella Sciorra), a recently separated office drone longing to visit Spain, and the sex- and destruction-obsessed Conquistador (Michael Aronov) she’s apparently conjured up from her mind, the play struggles to show that modern disaffection and the 16th-century conquering spirit are close kin. The end of the first act finds Barbara, at the Conquistador’s urging, triumphantly running through her husband (Erik Jensen) and an offstage policeman with a bloody Spanish longsword. Good times.
Were it not for the relative restraint and polished comedy skills of Veanne Cox as Barbara’s friend Diversion (in the most blatant case of symbolism run rampant) and Lisa Kron as a mysterious Mayan ancient, all this unbridled and uninteresting anger would be unbearable. As it is, it’s a close call: One character describes the feeling of all this as “participating in a ritualistic experiment,” which Sciorra’s painfully mannered line readings, Aronov’s stereotypical libidinous growling, and Jeremy Dobrish’s slapdash, anything-for-a-laugh direction make into the first act’s sole moment of recognizable truth.
The second act, however, is a different story. Once Barbara must face the consequences for her actions, Knable is forced to focus on his characters’ humanity instead of their oh-so-precious peccadilloes. That’s when the play becomes exactly the enchanting, fantastical romp through the psyche it was going for all along - it’s hard not to get swept away in the dreams of Barbara and everyone she escorts into her imagination. The exigencies of life have robbed them of their reasons to live it, but they learn it’s never too late to reclaim their purpose.
Everyone treads more lightly, from Sciorra shedding Barbara’s uneasy ice queen façade for a personality bubbling over with possibilities to set designer Beowulf Boritt’s embracing more fanciful (and less realistic) visions straight out of a children’s storybook. Dobrish, too, makes everyone abandon their dishonest, over-the-top games and insists they play people nursing their wounded emotions the best ways they know how. The play is considerably better for it, and even becomes genuinely moving - in isolated moments - before it ends.
It’s clear that Knable intends the first act as a warning against acting on our most basic impulses, whether vivisecting lovers who scorn us or going on an expensive vacation, and that he considers the early depths of darkness necessary to bestow the proper light of understanding later on. But the Grand Canyon-sized rift between the first and second acts in tone and style has just the opposite effect on Spain: A “real” world so blatantly disconnected from our own offers no inherent reason to trust the authenticity of the coming redemption, even when (or perhaps especially when) that turnaround proves to be well worth the wait.