Words Without End

23. February, 2012 Theater No comments

The primary selling point of Scorched is Oscar-nominated actor David Strathairn’s return to his native San Francisco for his second show at American Conservatory Theater, where he previously starred in artistic director Carey Perloff’s 1996 production of The Tempest. All the poster and flyer art is a close-up of his face, even though he’s strictly in a supporting role in the play. His may the primary male role, but this play belongs strictly to the women. Strathairn is, however, easily the best thing about the production.

David Strathairn and Babak Tafti in Scorched. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Scorched is a 2003 play by Wajdi Mouwad, a Lebanese-born Quebecois playwright. It was written in French as Incendies and was adapted into a film by that name that was nominated for an Oscar last year for best foreign-language film. ACT’s West Coast premiere uses an English translation by Linda Gaboriau.

Strathairn plays Alphonse Lebel, a notary tasked with executing the rather elaborate will of his friend Nawal, a woman who did not speak for five years before her death. In addition to her worldly possessions Nawal has passed along elaborate instructions for her funeral and two letters that her adult children are supposed to deliver to the father they’d always been told was dead and to a brother they never knew existed. She needs her children to redeem her life and fulfill an as-yet-undisclosed promise left unkept so that she’s worthy even of a headstone for her grave.

Alphonse is very into being a notary; he enjoys making inane small talk and has a hilarious knack for mangled colloquialisms.  (“Hell is not paved with good circumstances”; “I’m telling you that straight and narrow”; “Rome was not built in the middle of the day.”) Strathairn inhabits his social awkwardness awfully well, aided by a thick Canadian accent. He also plays a world-weary doctor in the unnamed war-torn Middle Eastern country Nawal comes from, with a haunting, matter-of-fact litany of the endless cycles of revenge that make up a war.

The play goes back and forth between young Nawal’s journey in search of the baby she was forced to give up as a young unwed mother and her daughter Janine’s quest to the motherland to try to unearth the secrets of a woman she realizes she never knew. Nawal’s son Simon wants none of it. He resents his mother for never showing him affection and is only concerned with training for a fight as an amateur boxer.

The trouble—or one trouble, anyway—with the play is that people speak only in long speeches. They don’t really have conversations but just dump truckloads of oratory on each other. In a play that makes much about the significance of silence, it seems as if when anyone in it doesn’t speak it’s only because they can’t get a word in edgewise. This weakness is exacerbated in director Perloff’s staging by having actors stand around as if unhearing until it’s their turn to speak. (Perloff also has a play of her own up right now that’s part of ACT’s season as well.)

There are few standouts among the generally ill-cast ensemble. Omozé Idehenre displays great passion as Sawda, young Nawal’s inseparable traveling companion, who’s eager to learn to read and break out of a village life of no possibility. Much is made in the text of her singing all the time, which is odd because as best I can recall she only sings once. In fact, for a play that has a character called the Woman Who Sings, we hardly ever hear singing in the show, except from a crazed sniper rocking out to Supertramp’s “Logical Song” and the Police’s “Roxanne” on his headphones. Nick Gabriel overdoes it a bit as Nawal’s florid puppy love Wahab and as this sniper who fancies himself an artist, photographing the faces of everyone he kills, but he does get under your skin uncomfortably as the latter.

Marjan Neshat is dreadful as the young Nawal. There’s never any sense that the character is saying things, only that the actor is reciting them, with a strangely robotic tendency to put pauses and emphases in all the wrong places. Jacqueline Antaramian, who plays Nawal’s mother and older self, has a similar tendency to orate, but at least she does so elegantly, lending her speeches an eloquence they might not otherwise have. It’s also understandable when she’s playing the older Nawat, who is in fact only reciting her letters and other written testimony. Antaramian also plays a laughably implausible old man in a long white beard.

New ACT core acting company member Annie Purcell is unreadable as Janine. Her blank expression and flat delivery never change, which makes it confusing when other characters talk about Janine crying or smiling and she’s clearly doing nothing of the kind. She’s a theoretical mathematician working on her PhD, and she speaks primarily in elaborate and heavy-handed mathematical metaphors. Janine’s supposed to be the person who’s really driven to solve the mystery, but in Purcell’s portrayal she doesn’t appear to feel anything, and thus neither can we.

Babak Tafti plays Simon’s anger well, but the character is so underwritten that there’s only so much he can do with seemingly endless repetitions that he doesn’t care about anything but his boxing—particularly because the fact that he’s a boxer never becomes relevant. (He could just as well be a ventriloquist or a pastry chef.) The less said about Tafti’s swishy Middle Eastern tour guide the better. ACT company member Manoel Felciano has workmanlike turns as an oddly talkative soldier, a hapless photographer, and Nawal’s former hospice nurse who was inexplicably fascinated with this woman who never spoke. Apollo Dukakis (Olympia’s brother) has an oddly masculine dramatic turn as Nawal’s dying grandmother and then keeps popping up as a grumpy janitor, an amusingly questioning shepherd, and a stoic sheikh.

Perloff’s staging does offer some striking images, as when a lawn sprinkler against a window suddenly becomes a shower of blood when someone describes a massacre. (Russell H. Champa’s red lights complete the effect.) One of the highlights of the show is Scott Bradley’s scenery, an ever-shifting abstract landscape of ruined finery.

There are plenty of resonant lines and isolated passages of eloquence in Mouwad’s script, and the running gag of Alphonse’s malapropisms never gets old, but more often all that speechifying just comes off as stiff and stilted. Given the heavy subject matter of wartime atrocities, it’s remarkable that the play elicits practically no emotional reaction. It also hinges on the great mystery of what Nawal’s big secret was but builds practically no suspense or even curiosity about what that secret might be. Eh, we’ll get there.

The big reveal in Scorched is so vital to the play having any impact at all that it’s to be carefully guarded, as if it were the end of Sleuth or The Mousetrap. When that moment comes, it’s brutally effective and may for a moment make the rest of the play seem for a moment like it’s better than it is. That scene makes it at least somewhat understandable what Perloff saw in this play that made her want to stage it, but once the shock of impact subsides it’s clear that one good scene doesn’t atone for nearly three hours of mediocrity. It doesn’t redeem anything.

Through March 11
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #22 of 2012, attended February 22.

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