Friday, May 11, 2007

"Unmentionables" at Yale Rep - Provocative, Dramatic, Comedic

The East Coast premiere of Bruce Norris's "The Unmentionables" sizzles, quite literally, from the opening moment of the production. Developed at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, it was directed there and, here again, by Anna D. Shapiro. Good move by the Rep's Artistic Director, James Bundy, and Managing Director, Victoria Nolan, to bring this hot two hour piece to New Haven through May 26th.

The play is set in western Africa. The upscale, inviting home of Don (Paul Vincent O'Connor) and Nancy (Lisa Emery) has been designed, quite beautifully and in great detail, by Todd Rosenthal. (Rosenthal grew up, by the way, in Longmeadow.) He has created a villa which expands across the stage, adorned with curled, silver razor-like wire along top sides of the roof.....The building, however, feels like an American split-level job.

The show begins as Etienne (Jon Hill) roams down the theater aisles, moves on stage all the while advising theategoers that the imminent presentation is not at all worth retrieve money spent on tickets, etc. He withholds nothing. Etienne is pivotal as the action unfolds.

Further participants include Jane (Kelly Hutchinson) who seems to be ill - what's the problem? She and her fiance Dave (Brian Hutchison) are taking an overnight in Don and Nancy's guest room since a fire has left Jane and Dave without room. Jane is an American TV actress who has had enough of celebrity and Dave is a missionary (from Indiana) trying to help local kids in Africa. Don is a wealthy, large American who owns a factory while his bright, all-too-verbal, hovering, insistent wife Nancy cannot stay out of anyone's business. A dope-smoking physician (Kenn E. Head) offers Jane advice concerning her ailment, even if he isn't quite certain that she is actually sick. Actress Ora Jones plays Aunty Mimi, a politico who looks into accusations which ultimately surround Etienne. A couple of strong African military men (Chike Johnson and Sam Gordon) play prominent roles as Norris's script unfolds.

Thematically, morality is at the center of "The Unmentionables." What is the value of generosity? See Dave. What is a do-gooder? See Dave. Self-righteous? See...... Is Don perceptive or a prototypical aging American man looking for something on the side? Could it be that Nancy possesses a more accurate self-awareness than any one else on stage? Just how brutal are conditions in the Third World? Is Etienne a victim? If so - of what -- colonialism?

Norris takes shots at virtually every character yet one feels sympathy for several. Thus, the playwright provides drama with multi-dimension. Just when one has a character fully typed and pigeon-holed, he/she demonstrates further depth. "The Unmentionables" is exceptionally well written.

And, it's funny through its absurdity as Norris stretches characters to extremes. Just one example: Nancy wants, needs, and misses sex; intrigued? Emery's precise timing is most impressive. Norris exaggerates the people he creates and the amplification feeds the show's humor.

Additionally, "The Unmentionables " (why, exactly, this title?) is truly an ensemble work which features excellent acting. No leading men or women. There's a thoughtful to the symmetry of the play which begins and ends with Etienne -- and is oh so contemporary -- cell phones galore. Here's a guarantee: You will not be able to sit through the performance and keep a straight face during Emery's mini-monologues, Head's passionate tendency to light up......See for yourself.
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