Anne Washburn's The Internationalist, which just opened at the Vineyard Theatre, is one of the most incomprehensible plays New York has seen in years.
This is not a bad thing.
As it's set in "an unspecified Central or Eastern European country," it makes sense that a considerable portion of its dialogue would be baffling to Western ears. (Washburn invented this country's language herself, and quite convincingly.) Focus on an American who's traveled to this country on business, but doesn't speak the word of the native language, and you've got a solid setup for exploring how we deal with what we know - and what we don't - when clear communication simply is not assured.
Yes, yes, Bush administration foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and all that. With a premise like this, you can spin the broader meaning as much as you like and probably still be right. But for the most part, that's not what makes The Internationalist so provocative, or even what Washburn is after: As she sees it, corporations and empires may fall because of verbal misunderstandings, but the language barrier does a lot more damage when it passes through the heart.
That's what seems to happen here, with businessman Lowell (Zak Orth) arriving at this country's airport and meeting Sara (Annie Parisse), a representative of the company he'll be working with, who's there to escort him to his hotel. Their initial meeting is tentative, confused, perhaps flirtatious, and as their interest in each other grows, it seems as though a new relationship - of some kind - is getting off on just right foot.
However, once Lowell arrives at the office and meets Sara's coworkers, he's given ample reason to question her motives and veracity. It turns out she's not exactly playing on her colleagues' field - her job responsibilities are strangely secretarial. In fact, everyone treats her as more simple - even fragile - than would seem necessary for the worldly, adventurous Sara Lowell spent much (if not all) of the previous night with. And since he can't just come out and ask her what the truth is - can he? - serious problems unavoidably arise.
Parisse's pock-marked youthfulness and intense-but-spacey manner are just right for her devastating cipher of a character; Orth conveys the proper privileged, priggish Eurocentricity for Lowell, though he never seems especially businesslike. Nina Hellman, Gibson Frazier, Liam Craig, and Ken Marks all do deft work as Sara's officemates and assorted other ensemble characters.
But it's Washburn and director Ken Rus Schmoll who really make the evening, and do a marvelous job maintaining a suffusive aura of mystery over everything. Each exchange - in any language - can have any of a series of possible interpretations, and like Lowell, you're never completely certain of what's being said or what the speaker really means. But Washburn doesn't handicap you any more than necessary, insisting the actors use no accents so you hear every word with perfect clarity, even when (or perhaps especially when) those words are unfamiliar.
This allows for any number of clever scene constructions: Lowell's new coworkers are eloquently discussing art and family, all apparently in English, until he enters for his first day at work and the dialogue shifts immediately to their own language. Not long after, these same people stumble over their own words, often with embarrassing results, in trying to make themselves understood to Lowell. Everyone - not just the self-concerned Americans of the world - has the same problems.
Washburn expertly reinvents her game throughout, ensuring you never have time to fully adjust and thus keeping the premise lively for far longer than you might expect. She's much less successful when she tries to fortify her story with more concrete plot points - threads about a turncoat businessman and international intrigue on a museum tour strain the show more than they help it. But when she's hardly trying, she can summon some spectacular effects: I spent much of the evening after seeing The Internationalist obsessed with whether I'd actually heard the words "circus freak" in the middle of an otherwise unintelligible monologue.
There is eventually a payoff for all this, when Lowell and Sara try to mend their ever-bumpier relationship by dropping all pretense of communicating on the other's terms, and decide to speak and act from the heart. Sara, of course, must do this in her own language, and there's hardly a recognizable syllable in her resulting speech. But it's a testament to Washburn's creativity and her skill crafting emotional situations that you nonetheless understand every word Sara says.