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A CurtainUp Review
Rogers undertook a challenge to put this complex, remote situation into a perspective that could relate to the experience of one American family. Tension and danger is implicit as the family becomes unwittingly entangled in a complex sociopolitical maze fueled by distrust and long-standing hatred.
During the course of this fragmented chilling play, seen last year at London's National Theater and now being given a limited run at the Roundabout's Laura Pels, Jack Exley's family becomes not only divided by misguided intentions, but also by their own naiveté. Filled with probably more exposition than most dramas can realistically support, director Max Stafford-Clark has shaped the play's unwieldy structure into a vivid, if depressing, portrait of a time and place where conditions suddenly spiraled out of control.
Exley (Sam Robards), a middle-aged professor of international relations, has done a lot of traveling. For all his international savvy he is unaware, even oblivious, to the incendiary conditions to which he has unwittingly subjected himself, his wife Linda (Linda Powell) and his 17 year old son Geoffrey (Michael Stahl-David). But how was Jack to know what to expect when he arrives in Kigali for a reunion with Joseph (Ron Cephus Jones), an old college friend? Joseph had returned to his homeland as a doctor specializing in treating children with AIDS. Jack is there to consult with Joseph as part of his research for a book he is writing: "A comparative analysis of grass roots activists around the world."
Jack arrives a day ahead of Linda and Geoffrey and is met at the airport by Woolsey (James Rebhorn), a mildly cynical US Embassy official. In the car from the airport Woolsey talks about his job and how, since the end of the cold war he has been reduced to "shuffling papers and picking up tourists." His rhetorical question "What are we protecting?"gives a hint of the kind of questions to be asked in a series of furtive conversations that Jack, Linda and Geoffrey later have with other foreigners and Rwandans with whom they become involved.
Perceiving Jack as either conspicuously naïve or simply spectacularly dense becomes a major dramatic factor as Jack, as well as Linda and Geoffrey, heedlessly become embroiled in politically driven, life-threatening situations with no clue as to how to deal with them. When Jack finds Joseph is missing from the clinic, he begins to worry. However, neither the local police, diplomats or government officials seem willing to help him find his vanished friend. Jack persists in his search can be regarded as foolhardy. It is matched bt the blatantly irresponsible way that Linda, a journalist and Sam's black second wife, digs for information from questionably friendly informants; and the way Geoffrey stupidly becomes involved with a Rwandan hooker. We cannot help but be one step ahead of them as we plainly see the web in which they are caught.
Though Robards may make you wince at Jack's dogged commitment to track down his friend his performance is sturdily defined. Powell is excellent as the aggressive journalist who doesn't realize how she is being used by those she trusts. As Geoffrey, Stahl-David is believable as the uprooted teenager whose friendship with the family's servant Gerard (Chris Chalk) is compromised when things get ugly. Cephas Jones effectively punctuates his scenes with fear and desperation, as the fugitive Joseph. Boris McGiver is terrific and so virtually unrecognizable as a French diplomat and a South African NGO worker that only the program lets you know he is playing both roles. Also doubling with marked differences in personality is Sharon Washington, as Joseph's fearful wife and as a dedicated Rwandan doctor. Among a strong supporting cast, Charles Parnell empowers Samuel Mizinga, a Rwandan government official with gracious duplicity.
The all-in-one setting by Tim Shortall, in which a large wall mounting of the Madonna and child and an altar with cabbages dominates and a few tropical trees and lattice work fencing, is mostly suggestive of various places. The repositioning of tables and chairs create changes in locale. David Weiner's atmospheric lighting sheds light on a tragedy that is still left sadly in the shadows by Rogers' mainly well-intentioned play.
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