By Scott Harrah
Traveling abroad can be either a culturally enlightening experience or a disorienting ordeal, depending upon one’s interest in jetting overseas to encounter strange foods, unfamiliar customs, and foreign languages. Anne Washburn uses this theme of discomfort and the American traveler in her ambitious but confusing new drama, “The Internationalist.”
The sheer beauty of live theater from the arenas of ancient Greece to Elizabethan England to the present day has always been the pleasure of watching actors tell a story via a rich and complex narrative. It’s something one simply cannot experience while watching a film because celluloid often relies heavily on visual elements, camera angles, and special effects to propel a plot forward. On the stage, however, a drama must have lucid, intelligent dialogue to be effective. Words are basically all stage actors have with which to communicate, and if many of the words they speak are not even a real language as is the case here much of the playwright’s intent is instantly lost.
It’s difficult to pinpoint just exactly what playwright Anne Washburn is trying to say in “The Internationalist.” The story opens in an airport in a fictional country that may or may not be somewhere in Eastern Europe (it’s never made clear, but the fictitious language the natives speak sounds distantly Slavic). Zak Orth plays Lowell, a jet-lagged American businessman who has just landed in the country after a long layover in Istanbul. A woman named Sara (Anne Parisse) meets him outside of customs. He thinks she’s a limo driver and wonders if he needs to change over his currency in order to tip her. What ensues is an odd exchange of dialogue in which he she misunderstands him and thinks he has mistaken her for a prostitute.
When he apologizes, she explains cryptically, “I’ve seen too many foreign pictures lately. With sudden, unmotivated bad sex.” Such non-sequiturs might be amusing in a campy spy film from the 1970s, but in a serious drama they are simply gibberish. This first scene and its unintelligible dialogue set the entire perplexing tone for the rest of the play.
The next day, Lowell arrives at the office to take care of some unspecified business. He encounters a variety of stereotypical corporate types, all of whom speak American-accented English flawlessly. Sara turns out to be an office gofer who performs menial tasks for the big boss, Simon (Ken Marks), and staff members Nicol (Gibson Frasier), Irene (Nina Hellman), and James (Liam Craig). We learn there is something sinister going on with the company’s accounts involving another employee, Paul (played by Ken Marks in a dual role). Lowell must meet with the man at an ominous bar to find out what’s going on. This particular bar is a dark, creepy place in which a mysterious bartender creates potent cocktails and reportedly once used his unique alcohol-mixing skills to poison Nazis.
This thin, impossible-to-follow storyline is interwoven with a series of meaningless, half-baked subplots involving a brief romance between Lowell and Sara, and Lowell picking up a quick-witted prostitute on the street (played with aplomb by Nina Hellman in the play’s other dual role).
Playwright Anne Washburn, for some unexplained reason, sees an odd connection between foreign travel and the world’s oldest profession. Audiences will spend most of the play in a state of lethargic frustration, trying to decide whether this is all supposed to be a drama about the obstacles Americans encounter abroad, a politically charged mystery, or a thriller. The problem is that it’s futile to even bother classifying the play’s genre because the characters speak dialogue that segues back and forth between English and the “native tongue” of the country, which is nothing but gobbledygook. Deciphering the story’s point might be possible for those fluent in different languages if the play were set in a real country like Hungary or Poland, and the characters spoke snippets of a language that actually exists. Ken Rus Schmoll directs the cast as best as he can under the circumstances because it must have been a major challenge to get the actors to express actual emotion while speaking words that only make sense to the author.