Learning on the Fly

When it was first produced in 1988, Lee Blessing's Two Rooms received glowing reviews for its clear-headed treatment of terrorism. It was an honest play. Face-to-face with a reality more brutal than what America's armchair pundits will ever confront, Blessing's characters exhibited a desperate confusion.

It may have seemed like an obvious tack in 1988, when terrorism was a remote concern to any American not employed by an embassy. Today, moral certitude is coin of the realm, and human uncertainty is the provenance of soldiers and ministers.

Two Rooms follows three years in the life of Michael Wells, a professor taken prisoner by a Shiite faction in Beirut in the mid-1980s. You never see his captors, and neither does he: He must wear a blindfold, we learn, or else he is beaten.

He rarely leaves the stage. Kneeling or lying on the floor, he twitches in the shadows as the action moves to America, where his wife, Lainie, has cleared his old study, fashioning a cell of her own. She is visited there by Ellen Van Oss, a horrifyingly reserved mouthpiece from the State Department, and by a reporter named Walker Harris. The two don't agree on much. Ellen wants Lainie to keep her head down and her fingers crossed, secure in the faith that the government will do right by her husband. Walker wants Lainie to sing like a bird — preferably to him, preferably in an exclusive interview.

Not a lot happens in Two Rooms. The men and women on stage seem eerily frozen. Michael wonders how Lainie's doing; Lainie wonders about Michael; Ellen dispenses platitudes. Only Walker seems to believe that events have not spun completely out of control. He blusters on and on about speaking up and speaking out, as though Lainie's actions or his own might impact the lives of Shiites an ocean away. At first, he's inspiring. Later, he sounds like a carnival barker, hawking the virtues of the fourth estate for the same reasons Ellen Van Oss stumps for the first.

The Promethean Theatre's production of Two Rooms is not the easiest thing to see, or to make peace with. That's partly because the play deals in ugly realities, but it's mostly because of how the four actors struggle with material that, at least in the beginning, eludes them.

With the exception of Ken Clement's great, braying Walker Harris, the performances are oppressively monochromatic. Widow-in-waiting Lainie Wells spends the play's two-hour duration either depressed or angry, just as the script demands. But there are a billion subtle gradations of depression and anger floating around out there, and when taking on a part like Lainie's, it would help to be on a first-name basis with them. Actress Nicole Mitchell is not. Actor Jeffrey T. Bower runs into a similar problem inhabiting the person of Michael Wells. His voice is tremulous, all jitters and barely-suppressed hysteria. You want to sympathize — obviously, getting kidnapped is no fun — but you'll soon find yourself wondering why his panic hasn't dissipated after a couple of years in a cell.

This complaint probably has to do with the relative youth of the cast. With the exception of Ken Clement, I don't believe any of these actors are out of their twenties, although the material was clearly written for older folks. Lee Blessing visualized worry-lines and resignation; this cast gives us emo.

Why not, though? I'm looking at my notebook, and I see where I made this note: "Shades of gray needed." And I remember that I was crying when I wrote those words, because one of Jeff Bowers' tremulous-jittery-hysterical monologues had just ripped out my heart and fed it to me. Funny how that works.

In a weird way, TPT's production of Two Rooms comes alive because of its flaws. I don't think the three younger actors really knew what to do with these roles — I think they approached them with trepidation, and the kind of reverence most of us feel when contemplating a reality too gruesome to apprehend. Thanks to that reverence, there are moments when you can actually witness the actors learning on the fly, feeling for the truths their words describe. I'm thinking about Bowers running his hands over the incidental topography of his cell's walls, feeling the bumps and cracks, imagining they constitute a map of a freer, better country. I'm thinking about Mitchell screaming at Ken Clement in the second act, bereft and helpless as anyone I've ever seen, when suddenly her helplessness is subsumed by a rage that comes pouring out of her mouth like the judgment of God.

Mostly, though, I'm thinking about Toohey. At first, her portrayal of the State Department representative and all-purpose-government-avatar is painfully stiff. She has the stage-walk and stage-talk of someone who's spent too long hanging around university drama departments. This is sometimes fitting, since she's a fed. But real government drones are artificial in a sleazy, evil way. Toohey just seems artificial. I bitched about this rather forcefully when my dates and I stepped outside during intermission. Ten minutes later, I ate my words.

Explaining the official government line on terrorism and extremism, Toohey stands on stage, citing atrocity after atrocity. There's nothing human about it. She is a foreign policy encyclopedia, a robot. Then her voice snags. She's describing how, in some part of the world, young children and teenagers wrap themselves in blankets and run across minefields to clear them for advancing infantry. They think they're doing God's work; that they'll blow up and go immediately to heaven. Toohey's eyes drift out of focus; she's seeing it. Her words are sucked into the back of her throat, and she's going to pieces; the broken heart of the play is about to explode, half an hour ahead of schedule. The monologue is a minefield, and there's no way Toohey's getting out alive.

Then she reins herself in.

TPT staged Two Rooms because it's timely, but whatever value one might take away from it has nothing to do with how the political situation in 2006 resembles that of 1988. Rather, Two Rooms has the power to shock and stir an audience because its actors can be shocked and stirred. For my money, that's a lot more interesting.

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Brandon K. Thorp