Night and Day
Director James Bohnen carries it off with a mostly naturalistic approach, in spite of a few understandable problems. Shawn Douglass is the world-weary journalist arriving on the brink of a civil war that reminds him, and Jeff Cummings (as a photo journalist), of the just-ended Vietnam war. And when a journalist newcomer (Greg Matthew Anderson) scoops them both, the two older hands must stop comparing war stories and try to catch up.
But the situation in this fictional African nation remains a mysterywith life-threatening consequencesuntil the final, late night appearance of a colorful, embattled president (Ernest Perry, Jr.). Before his entrance we learn very little about him, except that he may have played Othello (nudge, nudge: Shakespeare's manipulated Moor) during his British schooling. This will turn out to be a false story, but the actual truth of the matter (when it's finally, abruptly, thrown in our laps) is so woefully under-developed by Stoppard that even he seems to have lost interest in problems of colonialism at least twenty minutes before the final blackout.
Essentially, though, we are left (at the last minute) to do all of the work of stitching together a threadbare conceit that this African president represents not a foolish and barbaric Othello, but another creation of the Bard: one who's tired of playing a monstrous slave for all these far-flung Westerners. Sadly, though, the white characters (and Stoppard, too) are far too distracted by their own grand indictments against each other to correct their pat misjudgment of him. And before we know it, the elegant, sly leader has come and gone, leaving the whites to continue with their vain penchant for labeling and recrimination, without him. I'd give more credit to Stoppard for pointing out the dangers of Western self-absorption, but he seems to have little time for it himself, in this work from 1978.
Nevertheless, the energetic, fast-paced action is set in the home of the Carson family, headed by a British mining engineer (David Darlow) and his much younger spouse (Linda Gillum), freshly imported from London. Mr. Darlow is the picture of grizzled English nonchalance, tinged with wariness, while his wife Ruth (Ms. Gillum) is placed in an extremely awkward position by the arrival of the three reporters. But the play falters in Ruth's frequent asides to the audience, which are a little hard to tune into, either from vague direction or the lack of special lighting that might clarify her moments of direct-address. And yet, thanks to Ms. Gillum and Mr. Stoppard, these asides are eventually worked into a funny, surreal little moment.
As you might expect, the production was in previews before the critics ever showed up. And, coming in after all of that, I became aware that some of the actors were trying very hard to enunciate as clearly as possible, presumably after feedback from the preview audiences, or from the play's dialect coach. But their extreme clarity of diction produces an annoying, artificial tone, where even the "throwaway lines" get special delivery. Combine that with the script's built-in awkwardness for the evening's hostess, and poor Ms. Gillum (whose diction is stretched out of all proportion) begins to look like a yowling cat on roller skates. What can one say? Better luck next time?
Still, the cast (especially young John Francis Babbo as the Carson's little boy) is engaging, and Messrs. Douglass and Cummings (as the two veteran newspapermen) are careful not to turn themselves into parodies, with their trivia contest over the local unrest. Though, on that same subject, I begin to feel even sorrier for Ms. Gillum: as Ruth, one of her first lines is a painful movie cliché, a strangely hilarious complaint about "those incessant jungle drums," that might have gone down better if it'd actually been set-up to get a laugh. Or maybe Stoppard knew it was funny all along but, through bad direction or bad casting or bad luck, this Ruth (and perhaps most of the cast, in general) is too brittle to make it work.
"Help! as she so often says, herself.
Through October 31, 2010, at the Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 North Lincoln Ave. For more information call (773) 244-8119, or visit them on-line at www.remybumppo.org.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association