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The lights that come up on Lee Blessing’s Two Rooms at Round House Theater reveal a landscape as spare and bleak as any Beckettian void. A blindfolded man named Michael kneels on a thin mattress in an otherwise empty space. His hands are shackled, his clothing filthy and torn. An American hostage in Beirut, he is Beckett’s existentialist Everyman made flesh. Unable to see, kept in a soundproof cell, he senses that time has stopped as he lies waiting…for death, for release, for something other than stasis. He has no reason to be hopeful, yet he hopes. Allowed no communication, he talks to the air.
As the scene fades, we’re transported to another void, this one in Pinter territory, where life’s torments have faces and voices but communication is still impossible. Michael’s wife Lainie has replicated her husband’s environment in their suburban home, stripping his office of ornamentation and furniture and sealing off its only window in an attempt to feel closer to him. When first glimpsed, she’s pushing a thin mattress around the floor as if it were the pointer on a giant Ouija board. Despairing of ever finding a space that feels right, she places it—with a resigned, “This will have to stand for all the corners of the room”—at the exact spot on the stage where her husband had lain moments earlier.
Into Lainie’s sanctuary come two figures who hold her hostage as surely as Michael’s Lebanese captors hold him. A newspaper reporter named Walker wants Lainie to make waves that will force the State Department to do something for her husband. State Department flack Ellen urges her not to agitate already treacherous diplomatic waters. Each of them claims to be empathetic, but both are self-serving. Walker says, “I won’t write anything if you don’t want me to,” and then, when nothing newsworthy happens for a while, breaks the promise. Ellen offers bromides that suggest the possibility of progress (“without hope, there can be no foreign policy”) but are really designed to discourage movement in any direction, lest a bad situation be made worse.
As they argue their positions to a standoff, Lainie’s only escape is to retreat into her memories of Michael, just as he finds solace in remembering her. She sits on the mat, stroking thin air and hoping he feels it. He curls up in the darkness, remembering the touch, fragrance, and taste of his wife. Director Sue Ott Rowlands treats the mattress’s few square yards as an island of feeling in a world where everyone seems intent on reducing emotions to language. Lainie becomes fragmented and incomplete when she’s talking with Walker and Ellen. The knowledge that their words are meaningless turns her own phrasing mushy. “Whatever took Michael,” she finds herself saying, “whatever will bring him back is a power so inconceivable, we can’t understand it.” Defeated by the facade she’s required to maintain in public, she’s whole again only when holding a husband who’s not there.
Dramatically, that’s not entirely rewarding, but it’s a tack Blessing has taken before with some success. In his disarmament debate, A Walk in the Woods, the author’s Soviet and U.S. negotiators spoke brightly of missiles and diplomacy, but were never so fascinating as when they found common ground in their private lives. And in the lovely generation-gap drama Eleemosynary, Blessing made a real virtue of balancing the concerns of a grandmother, mother, and daughter where most authors would have been tempted to pick favorites.
Of course, while an evenhanded approach is fine in domestic circumstances, it’s apt to look like fence-sitting where volatile public issues are concerned. Recognizing that hostage situations call up all sorts of unmanageable emotions, Blessing seems to shrink from them, laying out the respective interests of government and the press as if he were diagraming a debate rather than staging one. Fortunately, he’s abetted in production by players who humanize the arguments by emphasizing the flaws of the people uttering them.
In playing Ellen, Jane Beard adopts a flat Midwestern accent that is as purposely generic as the things the State Department requires her to say. The compassion she expresses always sounds official, and she doesn’t sentimentalize the character. Her Ellen is a hardened realist who, upon dashing Lainie’s hopes with a curt, “Frankly, no matter what you do, we won’t ask for his release; it is not his time,” regrets only that she has been forced to be so frank.
By contrast, Jerry Whiddon’s journalist is as self-centered as he is principled, and as naive as he is caring. He seems to believe that what he’s urging Lainie to do—to grant interviews, go on TV, and generally kick up a ruckus—will have some effect beyond providing a media circus for him to exploit. But his slouch somehow belies his claim that he only wants what’s right. He’s behaving unprofessionally—getting waaay too close to his chief source—and he knows it.
The couple at the center of the drama are more saintly, but not without a certain edge. Marty Lodge’s shackled Michael manages to convey the sense of humor that might keep someone sane during years of isolation. He’s stymied by having to emote his way through a studiedly picturesque list late in the evening of all the little things that make life worth living—“people buying oranges…designing coat hangers,” etc.—but generally, he keeps the maudlin qualities of the part at bay. Kathryn Kelley’s Lainie is tremulous and pained when frightened, but can also be exasperating, and a holy terror when crossed.
All of which doesn’t quite make the evening work emotionally. The folks at Round House have gone to great pains to make Two Rooms plausible onstage—the printed program even contains an interview by Round House dramaturge Ronald Miller with former Beirut hostage Robert Polhill and his wife, Ferial—but despite a lot of unexceptionable work, there’s a chill at the play’s center. It wants to tug at heartstrings, but ends up tugging at the intellect instead.
In Ott’s staging of the play’s last image, the voids inhabited by Lainie and Michael finally come into sync. Neil McFadden’s delicate, jazzy score rises gently to the occasion, and Daniel Schrader’s lights bathe the couple in an ethereal glow. There’s a symmetry that’s undeniably beautiful, but it practically defies tears.