Off-Broadway Review: “Orwell in America” at 59E59 Theaters

David Roberts

  • Chief New York Theatre Critic

Joe Sutton’s “Orwell in America” imagines what might happen if George Orwell were to embark on a book tour in post-World-War II America with his publicist. How would an American audience receive his “Animal Farm” and his deep commitment to Democratic Socialism?

There is really nothing new in Mr. Sutton’s exposition: other than the fictional visit to America, all of the facts of Orwell’s life, including his given name, are matters of record. His personal life, his body of work, his involvement in the European War Theatre – all history. It must then be the fictional relationship between Carlotta and Orwell that saves the dramatic arc.

Carlotta Morrison (Jeanna De Wall) and George Orwell (Jamie Horton) make a sumptuous pair of verbally sparring opponents – she wanting Orwell to minimize his affirmation of Democratic Socialism in the book tour presentations and focus instead on promoting “Animal Farm;” he preferring philosophy over commerce and insisting on differentiating Democratic Socialism from the dreaded post-war understanding of Communism. 

“Orwell in America” though interesting and informative, is more “scholarly” than it needs to be. The visits to the book tour stops take on the tenor of lectures rather than attempts to promote “Animal Farm.” And the piece is overlong. There is no need for a fifteen-minute intermission to put the “Animal Farm” Commandments on the back wall of the set using a large stencil filled in with erasable markers so the tenants can be erased while Jamie Horton in his best Orwellian style delivers a brilliant precis of the novel. A standard chalk board rolled out would have worked quite nicely – other properties are secured from backstage in full view of the audience.

Mr. Horton and Ms. De Wall do justice to Mr. Sutton’s script but there is not enough in that script to offer either actor opportunities to explore their characters with depth. Or perhaps director Peter Hackett has not explored the depths of the actors’ formidable crafts. Caite Hevner’s set and Stuart Duke’s lighting are serviceable but unremarkable. Casey Predovic’s walk-on role as the Young Man who delivers groceries then travels to let Orwell know how he “impressed” him is worthy though unnecessary. 

The unrealized value in Joe Sutton’s script is his exploration of the dynamics of motivation. Carlotta wants to know why Orwell does what he does and believes as he does. Orwell wants to know why Carlotta took such professional risks (including altering her name to a male name) in order to be the publicist on the tour. Ostensibly, Orwell wants to make an impression – much like politicians might – that does some good. But Orwell seems to have something different in mind when he tells Carlotta, “Well, I don't know. But I do know that it's true. At least for me. I know … And it isn't that I don't believe what I say. I do. But why I say it, why I believe it … why I believe it so strongly … that I think might be different from what I would have said two weeks ago. I want to make an impression. I want to leave you … with an impression.” 

From the start, is Orwell doing what he does just to impress Carlotta? This odd romantic theme is extant from the beginning of the play and seems out of place when examined carefully. Orwell’s “interest” (this is fiction after all) in Carlotta is often discomfiting and alludes to a sexual and/or romantic liaison. One indeed would rather hear about “Animal Farm.”

That said, there is not enough new material or remarkable conflicts to make the narrative move forward in a fresh way. As it stands, “Orwell in America” is an exercise in semantics and a rehearsal of the rhetorical elements of logos, pathos, and ethos. That could have been accomplished in about seventy minutes.

The cast of “Orwell in America” includes Jeanna De Waal, Jamie Horton, and Casey Predovic. The production team includes Caite Hevner (set design), Amy Sutton (costume design), Stuart Duke (lighting design), and Ben Montmagny (sound design). Whitney M. Keeter is production stage manager. Production photos by Carol Rosegg.

The performance schedule is Tuesday – Thursday at 7:15 PM; Friday at 8:15 PM; Saturday at 2:15 PM & 8:15 PM; and Sunday at 3:15 PM. There will be a post-show discussion following the evening performances on October 15, 20 & 27. Performances are at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). Tickets are $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. 

Photo: Jeanna De Wall and Jamie Horton in "Orwell in America." Credit: Carol Rosegg