Thomas Burns Scully
Around this time last year, various good friends of mine told me about a play that I really should go and see. In a small theatre space in Chelsea, Origin Theatre was putting up a play called ‘The International’ that was, by all accounts, excellent. I didn’t doubt it, Origin Theatre has a knack for choosing good plays and putting them up well (Their back catalogue includes the New York Premieres of the likes of Enda Walsh, Mark O’Rowe and Lucy Caldwell). However, like a lot of people, day-to-day life got in my way, and I couldn’t seem to find a convenient time to get down to the theatre to see it. C’est la guerre. Or so I thought. A few months ago I got wind that Origin was teaming up with Sarasota-based Urbanite Theatre to remount ‘The International’ at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre. Last night I finally got to see it. I have to say, this is a play that everyone should see.
‘The International’, written by Tim Ruddy, tells the story of a genocide in Eastern Europe. There are hints throughout that the play is dealing with Bosnia, and the atrocities committed in Srebrenica in the 1990s, but it is never explicitly stated. Said story is told through the eyes of three people: a local village woman, a Dutch member of the UN Peacekeeping force, and a Californian man experiencing the events via TV News. In a semi-unreal art-gallery setting, these three characters tell the story of events directly to the audience. Each of them recounts, from their individual, yet similarly helpless points-of-view, how unspeakable acts came to be committed against them, around them, and on the television in front of them.
There’s so much to say about this play; more than can possibly be said in any review. It is incredibly morally and philosophically complex, and yet wholly accessible. Tim Ruddy has created a harrowing piece here, unwavering in its apparent forensic journalism and its commitment to basic humanity. The writing is insidiously good. Like a horror film, Ruddy paints his characters into the picture of a normal, happy day, and then destroys their lives around them. He never lets the audience forget that the words ‘based on true events’ are hanging ominously in the air. His storytelling conceits are so simple, they shouldn’t work. Three characters taking turns to monologue at the audience shouldn’t be this engaging, terrifying and transformative. But then, it’s just that good. The characters are so relatable and human, you can’t help but feel for them. Like all good political theatre, no one gets out unscarred. ‘The International’ punches you repeatedly in the heart, mind, guts and soul, all while gently stroking your hair.
Of course, a production that relies so heavily on monologues is, by default, relying heavily on its actors. There is no stage spectacle here beyond three people talking to you. A weak link in this cast would kill the show dead, but, by god, this show lives. Timothy Carter, as the UN International called Hans, starts the play as a bluff, comically fastidious soldier. He ends it as a pathetic child, standing by powerless as bullies do their worst to everything and everyone around them. His performance has the air of Christoph Waltz about it, and you can’t help feel for him as his naive idealism is brutally stamped out.
Carey Van Driest is especially moving as farmer’s wife, Irene. The character of Irene is so identifiable: the pleasant housewife with an odd sense of humour; not someone who will change the world, but heroically ordinary and nice. Over the course of the play you watch her have everything taken from her, and yet Van Driest’s performance always emphasizes her hope, her joy at each speck of relief. Which makes it all the more crushing when each new violation occurs. She is heartbreaking to watch.
Ted Schneider as Dave, the Californian failed-sculptor, is an interesting one. His character is almost redundant, and yet is integral. Out of frustration at his life and fear for his failing marriage, he ends up taking a bet on the outcome of the conflict. He bets against the locals and Internationals, standing to win a large sum of money if they are wiped out. It’s almost like a Rogan-Franco comedy, but written with the dark sensibilities of Charlie Brooker. His character serves to give the audience technical information about what’s going on, and also to represent the normal western person in the context of events. Schneider plays it brilliantly. Clearly a man with comic sensibility, he knows how to highlight the twisted situation of his character. He plays up the ridiculousness of it all, framing it as if it should be funny because of how stupid the situation is, but his cynical expounding only serves to highlight how twisted and horrible things really are. He gives the performance its final, chilling edge.
Christopher Randolph’s directing touch here is of the velvet glove variety: almost imperceptible, except when it’s not. For the most part he has decided, quite rightly, that his cast is good enough to carry the story forward of their own accord. However, he knows how to give certain moments an added punch. With lighting designer Derek Van Heel he has coordinated an array of lighting shifts to alter the atmosphere of the largely static room; some subtle, some less so. Perhaps my favorite stylistic choice is towards the end of the play, when James Maloff’s set comes in to play more directly. The chaotic, modern-art paintings that make up the set seem relatively inoffensive for most of the show. However, as the story gets more and more twisted, the lights change behind them, and the paintings seem to become grotesque optical-illusions, like monsters surrounding the cast. Haunting is the only word for it.
I have barely scratched the surface here, about what ‘The International’ is, what it means, and how powerful it is. If you really do want to understand it, I have a rather elegant solution: go and see it. It will be money well spent, and you absolutely will be richer for the experience. This is political theatre at it’s finest. In fact, political theatre is almost a misnomer. This play isn’t forcing any agenda on its audience. It’s not leftist or rightist. It is, principally, a staunch plea for humanity, a warning against apathy and a reminder of just how recent history is. And how poorly we learn from it. It is current, and important, and the execution is faultless. It’s not a show that will make you happy, but it will make you ask yourself some serious questions. I’ll say it again: everyone should see this.
‘The International’ runs at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre on 42nd Street until August 2nd.
Tickets: $45 - $65
Purchasable at ticketcentral.com