Neda wants to die, and if this play had worked as I think it was intended, you might have wanted to die a little, too. Regrettably, Luigi Laraia’s earnest, plodding script has a surfeit of rhetoric and a deficiency of story, so that despite some first-rate acting we feel not horror and revulsion but impatience and boredom.
John Leighley (Dr. Richard Tanenbaum) is denominated as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but he looks and acts more like a mid-level case officer, stuck in a miserable outpost. He sits at a shabby desk in a shabby office (there is a hand-lettered sign announcing his position) to interview Laurent Sasa (Samuel Dumarque Wright), a local fruit vendor who inexplicably speaks excellent English and possesses a broad and deep education. Sasa wants to become a refugee.
Why does Sasa claim refugee status? Who’s out to get him? Beats me. I don’t know because Leighley doesn’t ask and Sasa doesn’t tell him. Instead they engage in chit-chat, which allows Sasa to challenge Leighley about his world-view and his qualifications for his job. It is difficult to imagine a case officer — complaining as he does of the thousands of matters in his portfolio — spending his time in such a manner. It is impossible to imagine the UN High Commissioner of Referees doing so.
Next, Leighley interviews Neda (Karen Elle), a woman who has been subjected to horrible depredations and losses during the war. It is much more obvious why Neda seeks refugee status, but for no clear reason Leighley is unable to move her case any faster than he moves Sasa’s. In fact, at one point he tells her that to become a refugee she will have to go to another camp hundreds of miles away. Neda directs her bewilderment at Leighley, but you may direct it, with similar effect, at playwright Laraia.
It’s hard to tell what the animating principal of this play is. Is it a story about Neda’s efforts to escape her tormentors? Is it a story about how Leighley responds to Sasa’s challenges? About midpoint, we see Leighley bombarded with voices from invisible sources, demanding help and protection. So is this a story about how tough it is to be the UN High Commissioner of Refugees?
What redeems this production is the acting of Elle and particularly Wright. Sasa is a supplicant whose nature is to domineer, and Wright balances these two competing aspects of his personality beautifully. He has a breakdown scene toward the end of the play which he performs with painful effectiveness.
Elle does a nice job of engaging the audience emotionally as she builds up to her climactic scene, in which she describes the atrocities done to her. That scene, incidentally, goes on about three minutes too long, so that Laraia can have Neda explain the moral lesson we are to draw from her suffering. It is a credit to Elle that Laraia’s didacticism doesn’t cost him the audience at that point. Both Wright and Elle are emerging actors looking to hit the big time and I hope they do. They deserve success.
Neda Wants to Die
by Luigi Laraia
Directed by Adam Knight
Choreographer: Adam Knight
Composer: Rachel Sberro
Details and tickets
Tanenbaum is convincing as a confused, indecisive, overwhelmed bureaucrat but not, I’m afraid, as the UN High Commissioner of Refugees. He does an interesting thing with the character: he gives him a verbal tic in which he repeats the first three or four words of a line several times before delivering it in full. It effectively shows Leighley’s indecision and uncertainty but he employs it far too often. Tanenbaum and director Adam Knight should remember Gary Prevost’s dictum: story isn’t life, it’s life’s greatest hits. Moreover, Tanenbaum’s mild, confused Leighley is not convincing as the man who angrily confronts his boss (Stuart D. Rick) or who traps Sasa in a lie, both of which happen toward the end of the play.
I realize that many Fringe shows don’t have the budget for props and special effects but if you can’t pull them off you shouldn’t attempt them. I’m thinking not only of the hand-lettered High Commissioner sign but a scene in which Neda means to show Leighley her scars by dramatically pulling her jacket down and displaying her shoulders. I was sitting in the front row, and her shoulders seemed completely unmarred.
Laraia’s play, drowning in good intentions, is apparently meant to tell us the hideous things that are done to women in wars in Africa. You probably know them already, though, from your news sources or from other, better plays. Watch this instead to see two actors who, with luck and in justice, will be performing at Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth, or the Kennedy Center (at much higher ticket prices) five years from now.