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Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 30, 2023

Marin Ireland and Andrew Burnap
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The classic 1937 film, The Spanish Earth, is a fascinating marriage of art and propaganda. Filmed during the Spanish Civil War, the documentary captures scenes from actual battles and shows the devastating toll on the lives of everyday people by the ruling fascists. A New York Times review hailed the "photographic eloquence" by Dutch director Joris Ivens but claimed his "admirable camera reporting" was at odds with the "vengeful, bitter and unreasoning" narrative provided by Ernest Hemingway. The effect baldly revealed, according to the critic, the film's "propagandist effort." Jen Silverman's new play Spain, in a similarly visually eloquent production by Second Stage, uses a fictionalized backstory of The Spanish Earth to highlight the ways in which misinformation is produced and consumed. Unfortunately, Spain suffers from a comparable clash of aims and ideas, and the result is both frustrating and enervating.

The play begins with an intriguing set-up about the film's dark genesis. Joris Ivens (Andrew Burnap), a genial and ingratiating narrator, very quickly discloses the play's intermingling of fact, fiction, and performance. Introducing himself, for instance, he explains as an afterthought, "That's me: Joris. I'm Joris. I'm Dutch, and I'm talking to you with a light Dutch accent."

Joris explains that he has been collaborating with Karl (Zachary James), a mysterious KGB-like figure, who is working for the Soviet government. Moscow, it seems, wants to finance a film about the Spanish Civil War with strong socialist leanings. (Although the script does not indicate it, the film was formally produced by a group known as Contemporary Historians, Inc., which included, among other famous lefties, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Archibald MacLeish. Also of note, Marc Blitzstein supplied the music, which included arrangements by Virgil Thomson.)

Joris's girlfriend and filmmaking partner, Helen (Marin Ireland), who is based on The Spanish Earth's editor Helen van Dongen, has been collaborating with the same Russian operative, and although neither possesses anything except superficial knowledge of Spain, they get to work planning the project. Realizing the need to attach writers to the documentary, the filmmakers first consider cerebral novelist John Dos Passos (Erik Lochtefeld) and then hypermasculine Ernest Hemingway (Danny Wolohan).

Danny Wolohan and Andrew Burnap
Photo by Matthew Murphy
As the play progresses, the initially politically naïve couple find themselves falling deeper and deeper into the Soviet machinations, but the film's success portends a lasting legacy in which realities are created, presented, and reduplicated from half-truths and whole lies.

Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, the production is tonally jarring, and the disconnect undercuts any intellectual or emotional engagement. Early scenes, for instance, suggest a screwball comedy of the 1930s. Auburn-haired Ireland, wearing high-waisted, wide-legged pants and a fiery red blouse (Alejo Vietti's costumes are witty and spot-on), recalls the comedic roles of Carole Lombard and Katharine Hepburn. Burnap, with his overly obliging and slightly daft manner, is reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. Both Ireland and Burnap are good, but they are working with regrettably thin material.

The breezy banter and goofy interplay are subsumed within conflicting film noir episodes involving the menacing Soviet. (Jen Schriever's lighting effectively evokes the cross fades, close-ups, and foreboding shadows of the genre. Dane Laffrey's set has a fair share of surprises.) As a result, the cinematic effects, no matter how impressive they are, tend to overwhelm the theatrical intentions.

Additionally, the playwright tends to overstate the themes rather than trust the audience to get the points organically. This is especially evident late in the play. Alluding to the historical fact that Hemingway contributed the film's narrative voiceover (and which had been originally done by Orson Welles), Hemingway delivers a monologue from a recording studio. (Daniel Kluger designed the sound and composed the original music.) Spouting Hemingwayesque prose, the character describes his own experiences in Spain and the ways in which stories and art can change the way we see the world. He explains: "Art-making, story-telling. You get inside somebody's brain and you rifle around and you change the connections, you change the neural pathways, and then you change them." And he sums up his point, "So this movie? That we're all doing? It's the equivalent of radical brain surgery."

The play goes to great lengths to show that the apparatuses used in performing radical brain surgery have changed in the last eighty-six years. Movies may have once been the favored tool of the propagandists, but contemporary social media is exponentially more powerful in reaching the masses. Alas, as an instrument for changing an audience member's neural pathways, Spain needs sharpening.

Through December 17, 2023
Second Stage Theater
Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: