Also see Susan's review of 33 Variations
The Unmentionables, the season opener at Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, uses slashing wit to consider the issue of what constitutes "civilization." Specifically, playwright Bruce Norris takes aim at well-meaning white Americans who believe that they personally can change the world for the better.
James Kronzer's sumptuous set depicts the villa near a west African village where Don (Charles H. Hyman), a factory owner, lives with his overly chatty wife Nancy (Naomi Jacobson). Their visitors on this particular day include David (Tim Getman), a young teaching missionary; his girlfriend Jane (Marni Penning), who is trying to escape her fame as a television star; Aunty Mimi (Dawn Ursula), a leader of the local government; and a doctor with little patience for pampered Americans (John Livingstone Rolle).
Norris sets up the situation in fairly black-and-white terms, both literally and metaphorically, and director Pam MacKinnon navigates the territory with skill. David is the sort of innocent believer who tries to connect with a troubled young African villager (Kofi Owusu) by telling him that "maybe Jesus Christ is a pretty cool guy" – a soft-hearted fellow who believes he knows how to make life better for people who have experienced things he can't begin to understand. On the other hand, Don is a hard-headed businessman who thinks that what's best for him will necessarily benefit those around him.
The topics are serious – leading up to a jarring scene that takes on the real, rather than the theoretical, role of torture in maintaining order – but that doesn't mean the play is either grim or unwatchable. Norris has packed it with uncomfortable humor, focusing on the outbursts of the self-dramatizing Nancy.
Jacobson goes all out with a riotous, hilarious performance as Nancy tells long, embarrassing stories, acts like a martyr when challenged, and takes the mantle of "9/11 survivor" on her shoulders with little reason for doing so. Hyman embodies some of the worst characteristics of the "ugly American": he doesn't speak French and many of the natives don't speak English, but he condescends to make conversation with no doubt that he will be understood.
The entire cast is dead-on: Rolle as a doctor who would rather smoke pot than deal with people he considers obscenely over-privileged; Penning, a woman trying her best to escape her own naïveté; Getman, a man who has never felt the need to question that his beliefs are the correct ones; and Ursula, a realist who understands that sometimes deals have to be struck and unpopular decisions made.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company