Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven
What we look for in a new young playwright is a unique style of expression. Bruce Norris, whose drama “The Unmentionables” is now on stage at Yale Rep, exhibits just that quality.
But does his difficult, demanding style work in this production? Yes and no. Too often his rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue descends into incomprehensibility (at least in this Yale Rep production under Anna D. Shapiro’s direction). But his style, which sounds like everyday human exchange, is elevated to a new art form. Somewhat like the technique of playwright Mamet, it is, however, Norris’s own voice.
The story deals with two couples playing out their lives in west equatorial Africa—a young missionary and his fiancé, and an older man, a wealthy industrialist, and his wife. At the heart of the story is the question of morals. Can one justify the torture of one individual to rescue another human being? Do the ends ever justify the means?
Dave and Jane, the missionaries, are guests of the older pair, Don and Nancy. Dave, taking a high moral stand, insults his host because he exploits the native population. Or so Dave feels. In a burst of self-righteous anger, he rushes out of the villa. The others fear for his life, thinking, with his prolonged absence, that he has been captured by insurgent forces. A young suspect, perhaps connected with the rebels, is brought in for “questioning.” What follows is a debate on how to get the truth from the boy. In sharp, clever turnarounds (not to be revealed here), the facts emerge. Norris has a gift for setting a plot on its head.
And he has a gift for creating funny, sharp personalities (well exhibited in another play, “The Pain and the Itch,” which is currently up for a New York award). This time around, it is the industrialist’s wife Nancy who gets that assignment. And the skilled actress Lisa Emery plays it to the hilt.
In all, it is a competent cast of nine. At least, body language is right on target. But, too often, lines are completely lost, as the actors struggle to keep up the rapid-fire exchange. In particular, Kelly Hutchinson, who is at the heart of the dilemma as Jane, is all but incomprehensible. And the African-accented English of several characters adds further confusion.
Director Shapiro is faced with a dilemma—at least as daunting as the dilemma of the characters themselves: how to make the dialogue understandable, but not lose the pace or style. She has yet to find that balance.
At the close of the play, the tortured boy reappears, and assures the audience that the play is not worth seeing, that an evening of television is a better choice. “Next time, listen to me,” he says. “Next time, stay home.
” This may very well be sound advice.
-- Irene Backalenick
May 12, 2007