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A CurtainUp Review
The Other Side

I swear . . .that it will always be like this no matter where we go, if you come with me, to the other side, this side, whatever side. . . --- Atom, as he begins to make love to the no longer young wife he still adores.

Rosemary Harris & Gene Farber
Rosemary Harris & Gene Farber
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Question: What happens when a bad play happens to two good actors?

Answer: When those actors are Rosemary Harris and John Cullum, they learn their lines and do everything they can to give their characters enough life so that the audience will be interested in what happens to them.

It's a tough slog even for pros like Harris and Cullum for The Other Side is that most difficult of theatrical genres, an absurdist allegory in which Atom Roma (Cullum) and Levana Julak (Harris) must be the sort of Everyman and Everywoman stand-ins for all the people caught in the middle of conflicts that seem to be never ending. Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean writer who's best known for Death of a Maiden (a political suspense drama set in a former South American dictatorship) and now teaches literature at Duke University, would seem to be a likely candidate for dramatizing the story of a couple who fell in love and married even though their respective countries didn't get along, this time suggesting a Balkan locale.

Harris and Cullum do manage to charm us initially. It's obvious that their love has survived twenty years of a brutal war during which their grim joint "career" has been to bury the thousands of people, mostly young, shot outside their door and to maintain records for when peace finally arrives and the victims' relatives can come to claim their dead. Though Atom has given up on peace and the return of their own long lost (to the war) son and wants to leave their ramshackle cottage just inside the border of the city of his birth, Lavana has determinedly remained optimistic. Her hopes are indeed confirmed by a radio announcement that the war has ended; but when this good news is immediately followed by a young man known only as Guard (Gene Farber) literally bursting through the walls of their house, Dorfman's play takes a fatal turn towards Kafkaesque absurdity with a generous dash of Beckett.

The young guard turns the couple's double bed into a territory. He patrols the border down its middle; thus Levana has to show her passport to cross to the kitchen (a tiny belly stove) that symbolizes Atom's country, and Atom must go through the same procedure to go to the bathroom at the opposite end of this newly partitioned landscape. While this is supposed to give the play a sardonic comic twist, the writing is hopelessly obvious and the humor falls flat.

Blanka Zizka's direction does nothing to bring any spark to this metaphoric world. Things go from bad to worse when the ever hopeful Levana becomes fixated on the idea that the young Guard is her long lost son. Not surprisingly, she persuades the volatile young man to sit down with them to share the soup she's been cooking -- but while her soup may be as tasty as the famous Soup Nazi's in Seinfeld, the brew that the playwright has cooked up fails to nourish.

Playwright: Ariel Dorfman
Directed by Blanka Zizka.
Cast: Rosemary Harris, John Cullum, Gene Farber
Set Design: Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design: Linda Cho
Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa
Sound Design: Scott Killian
Running time: 85 Minutes
Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 West 55th Street (212) 581-1212.
11/10/05; opening 12/05/95.
Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM, and Sunday evening performances at 7 PM. Starting Dec. 19: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, with matinees on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 PM.
Tickets: $65.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 12/16/05 performance

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