This year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival features two terrific world premieres, and when you go, you should make a point of sinking your teeth into each of them. Let us sink out teeth, now, into Barcelona.
Irene (Anne Marie Nest), a beautiful, fabulously wealthy American who has flown to Barcelona with the rest of a wedding party for a bachelorette vacation, is about to make passionate love to the exquisitely masculine Manuel (Jason Manuel Olazábel) in his funky Barcelona apartment. They are consumed with amorous fire. She has literally climbed up his body and they are kissing so deeply that one is in danger of swallowing the other. One of her high-heeled shoes is missing, revealing impeccably pedicured toes. She is oblivious to it. Irene and Manuel slam themselves down in the sagging mattress of his sagging couch/bed. And then…
…she starts to talk. She talks about the upcoming wedding, and the bridesmaids she left at the bar where they had been drinking cheap Sangria all night. She describes her flight from Denver on a private jet, owned by one of the fathers of one of the bridesmaids, who also owns an NFL team. She talks about the groom-to-be, who at his own bachelor party did a nasty thing with a banana and a stripper. She describes her ancestors, who landed in Virginia and walked to Utah. I come from pioneer stock, she assures Manuel. She compares herself to Cameron Diaz.
And Manuel listens to her, nonplussed. Because Olazábel is so gifted at providing a narrative with his facial expressions, we can almost hear what he is thinking. If only she wasn’t so self-absorbed, he thinks. If only she wasn’t so shallow. If only she wasn’t so dishonest with herself, covering her anxiety about sex through meaningless chatter. If only she wasn’t so American.
Manuel hates Americans.
At this point we almost hate Americans ourselves, so accurately does playwright Bess Wohl pinpoint our pretensions, our ego, our parochialism (despite four years of high school Spanish, Irene speaks not a word), our self-involvement, our condescension (she calls Manuel “Manolo”, constantly). Eugene Burdick and William Lederer wrote “The Ugly American” in 1958 and now, fifty-four years later, Irene is just as ugly, notwithstanding her fantastic good looks. It is abundantly clear that to her, Manuel is not a person but the Spanish phallic adventure she longs to have, but is afraid to undertake.
Manuel’s antipathy toward Americans is also grounded in something more concrete than our collective bad manners: the March 11, 2004 attack on Madrid’s commuter trains, which killed 191 people and wounded 1800. They were at the time thought to be coordinated by al-Qaeda, in reprisal for Spain’s involvement with the American war in Iraq. (The investigating judge ultimately determined that the attacks were the responsibility of a Moroccan national with no ties to al-Qaeda). The Spanish electorate responded by turning out the government and replacing it with Socialists, who withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq. Manuel still blames the United States for its warlike policies and for the influence it held over the Spanish government.
It is a canny choice of events for Wohl to use as the fulcrum for her story, for it illustrates, in stark detail, an important personality difference between old world and new. When America was attacked two and a half years previous, we responded with scalding fury against those we believed responsible. It would have been unthinkable that we would have blamed our government for its support of Israel, which was why al-Qaeda launched 9-11. Had America been the victim of the March 11 attacks, we doubtlessly would have doubled down in Iraq, and the reelection of our political leadership would have been assured. The Spanish perspective, which Wohl incorporates into Manuel’s character, is different. It is the perspective of an eight-hundred-year-old culture, which reveres the past. Manuel hates the way America seeks to constantly remake the world with a constant stream of product, be it MacDonald’s or Wal-Mart or…Cameron Diaz.
Once she sobers up some, Irene takes Manuel’s worldview on, and though her presumption continues to be breathtaking she is not always wrong. The American daring and assertiveness Manuel finds so distasteful has rendered some spectacular accomplishments, and Irene is not shy about reminding him of them. It is striking how well Wohl, through Nest’s well-modulated performance (and excellent direction throughout by Charles Morey), maneuvers Irene from ridiculous and offensive woman-child to truth-teller and moral center through the course of the play. Wohl succeeds in this tactic where Neil LaBute fails in another CATF production, In a Forest, Dark and Deep, because LaBute’s Bobby, in addition to being ridiculous and offensive, is malignant, whereas Wohl always keeps Irene, however flawed, on the side of the angels. Irene is an ass, but she is never mean.
Of course, Barcelona is more than a political discussion, or a debate about cultures. There are back stories, but for me to reveal them would be to diminish the pleasure which you would take from them if you see this play, as you should. Suffice it to say that there are good and sufficient reasons for Manuel and Irene to be the way they are, and Wohl spins them out at a pace which assures satisfaction.
The production is first-rate, with intelligent, spot-on acting and directing to match Wohl’s perceptiveness and wit. Olazábel in particular is a revelation. His expressive face and precise body movements add another dimension to Wohl’s storytelling. Had Eugene O’Neill ever worked with Olazábel, it would never have occurred to him to have his characters mutter their innermost thoughts to the audience (as he did in Strange Interlude); Olazábel’s face and body utter his thoughts more articulately than dialogue ever could. Nest, too, superbly articulates a character utterly different than the one she embodies in The Exceptionals, where she also does fine work. She is decibel- and pitch-perfect when Irene begins her vacuous natterings; we believe we know precisely who she is. When Irene takes on a broader, more serious dimension, Nest subtly alters her delivery. It is the same woman, but we see that there is more to her.
The CATF always works with new material, but when it deals with material as fresh as this (Wohl worked out the ending just days before opening) it is at its best. Thanks, guys.
By Bess Wohl*
Directed by Charles Morey
Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes, without intermission
Note: Playwright Wohl is the daughter of the good fiction and nonfiction writer Lisa Wohl, and has stated that Barcelona is inspired, in part, from one of her mother’s short stories. She does not identify it further, and I have been unable to find it.