Off Broadway Reviews
The Sword Politik
The Midtown International Theatre Festival
The few significant complexities present in Scott Purdue's The American Black Box, which is being presented as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, are enough to cause you to overlook its message's underlying simplicity: the United States is never entirely a victim. Focusing on a go-nowhere IT worker named Eric (Paul Kelly), who discovers that his Middle-Eastern-born boss, Yasser (Iftiaz Haroon), might be stealing the chemicals needed to make a bomb, it's a black-and-white morality tale desperate to convince you it's slathered in shades of grey.
But with perfunctorily drawn characters who usually come to easy conclusions and pay heavy prices for their sins, ambiguity is not exactly the order of the day. Neither Vincent Scott's highly focused production or the mostly accomplished performances can make you forget, for example, the comically put-upon office gatekeeper, Mira (the very funny Antoinette Dailey at the performance I attended), who's more interested in discussing her colostomy bag than homeland security threats. Or the baby crib that becomes an unintentional symbol of American imperialism. Or especially the passively menacing government agent (Jarett Karlsberg) spouting nothing but riddles and circuitous platitudes when he abducts and interrogates Yasser - who, of course, condemns Americans' eternal self-concern in clear, precise language.
No, Purdue has injected an point of view that relates directly to the title: Black box theory, Yasser explains to his captor, "suggests that we only need to understand something through inputs and outputs rather than on how those inputs and outputs are generated." The ties to America's own performance on the world stage, as well as the uncomfortably manipulative scenes between Yasser and the agent, making a blaring earache out of what begins as a subtle psychological study of contemporary paranoia. That Yasser's crime is never solved and is eventually forgotten is the essence of Purdue's point, but likely to be more satisfying to some politically than to anyone dramatically.
But if the play peters out well before it ends and says almost nothing new, it's still a fairly absorbing 90 minutes. Purdue's fondness for lengthy, intellectually intricate scenes between only two characters energizes the intimate uncertainty flooding the atmosphere, and proves that slow and steady tension-building can be just as crackling as quick-cut writing. The actors certainly help, with Kelly's darkly confused Eric a sturdy central figure and Katrina Ylimaki gently but firmly moving as his common-sense wife.
Haroon, in admittedly a difficult role, has constructed his performance utterly without specificity, leaving you as everyone else about his true motives. Unfortunately, you don't sense that the actor knows much more about Yasser's truth than you do. The trouble with The American Black Box is that you don't sense Purdue particularly cares, as long as his greater point, about America's swelled national head is front, center, and spotlit. But he might make that point more strongly if he made it less obviously.
The American Black Box
The Sword Politik
Conflict of a very different sort - and era - is at the center of Jonathan Marinus Crefeld's exciting but convoluted historical panorama, The Sword Politik. Per the program, it's set "in medieval Bavaria, near the border with the dreaded Hun Empire" in "the Dark Ages, a little past noon," and it looks it - the costumes and props are of uncommon quality and instantly thrust you into the conflict between the bereft but spirited Barony of Schliess and the rapidly expanding dukedom of the dastardly Otto von Brochol (Billy Weimer). Mediating the madness between the Duke and Schliess heiress Nina (Kerry Fitzgibbons) is Lord Ulrich Nachtenzeit (Crefeld), whose affiliation may or may not be as concrete as he so often tries to claim.
It's within that "may or may not" that this hyper-plotty show's problems fall - the switching allegiances, and the twisted relationships and influence brokering between Ulrich, Nina, Otto, and the Baron Maximillian von Murligstein (Paul Bellantoni) are tangled to nearly Gordian proportions. Following who's betraying whom and why, why this person is masquerading as a wandering sage, and which armies are really just about to run roughshod over Germania becomes flat-out impossible after about 45 minutes. But director Jon Ciccarelli and fight choreographer Michael Hagins have staged the show with such blade-clanking energy and (literally) in-your-face theatrics that, on some level, you're never completely lost.
Action movies are like that, after all - and from the pageantry to the romance to the dorky jokes, The Sword Politik keeps step with that genre. It has a way to go before it reaches Shakespeare, however. Crefeld's frequent use of period-piercing song and entire soliloquies of carefully florid rhyming couplets suggests intentional echoes of the likes of Henry V or Richard III. But those plays are fueled by deep characterizations and rich personalities that are too frequently sacrificed here to melodrama. And except for Weimer's gleefully vicious Otto and Ryan McCabe's stoutly stalwart sword slinger, Blackguard, the performers just live up to their roles' essential requirements - they never transcend them.
Not that they necessarily have to - a work that aspires to be Excalibur meets Robin Hood: Men in Tights meets Shogun Cliffs Notes only needs performances that can keep up with it, and everyone's here can. But your keeping up with the story, and maintaining interest whenever the fighting stops, might be a considerably greater challenge, at least if you make the mistake of blinking. Luckily, The Sword Politik is so crammed with action that it will be a rare minute when you can force your eyes closed for even a millisecond.
The Sword Politik