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This show is no good,” yells an African teenager sporting headphones and a lot of attitude a few moments before the houselights go down for Bruce Norris’ The Unmentionables. “Why you here? You got no TV? You think this makes you better people? Go home now.”
He’s wrong, of course. Following his advice would spare you a smidgen of obvious plotting in a dark comedy that goes where both headlines and moralists have gone before. But it would also deprive you of nearly two hours of gasp-inducing hilarity, a handful of splendidly calibrated comic performances and an intriguingly articulated moral question.
The question arrives rather late in the second act, after the characters—white Americans mucking about in equatorial West Africa and their variously contemptuous African hosts—have had a chance to shred one another’s pretensions. Dave, a prig of a Christian missionary, and his fiancée Jane, who’s given up a lucrative TV role to join him, are intent on doing Third World charity work. But a mysterious fire has destroyed their school for poor local children, forcing them to take temporary refuge in the walled, razor-wire-surrounded compound (persuasively isolated in a towering jungle by designer James Kronzer) of an industrialist named Don and his über-garrulous wife Nancy. Father Dave correctly blames Don for polluting the local water and impoverishing the locals, so there’s a degree of tension to this stay. But the alternative would be to ask his pampered actress-fiancée to sleep in a mattressless shed, so he’s biting his tongue while gently questioning Etienne (the kid who told us to go home at the evening’s outset) about the origins of that mysterious fire.
This annoys Aunty Mimi, the brusquely regal head of the corrupt local government. She regards the interrogation as an unforgivable breach of protocol but forgives it anyway, so as not to derail her lucrative relationship with Don. The industrialist’s laid-back African doctor is also on hand, politely mocking Jane’s claim that she’s suffering from fibromyalgia, an ailment, he notes, that never seems to afflict African women.
What begins as a chatty little comedy in which laughs arise mostly from pretense and social clumsiness—“I’m tired of turning out mindless, moronic shit for the consumption of shitheads,” blurts Jane, shortly after her hosts have said how much they love her TV show—turns significantly darker after intermission. Father Dave, frustrated at Jane’s nonchalance about corruption when it’s in support of their school, stomps out of Don’s walled compound and promptly disappears. Foul play is suspected—Dave’s predecessor at the school having been found headless after an abduction—and when a suspect shows up with Dave’s cell phone, the compound’s inhabitants are confronted with an ugly choice: Condone torture to get information that could save Dave’s life, or hold onto humane values and risk his death.
The playwright has Aunty Mimi and her minions usher the suspect to an offstage room pretty quickly, a neat metaphor for the Bush administration’s willingness to consider rendition of suspects to foreign authorities, and, well, let’s just say Geneva Convention protections are of no great comfort to him once he’s out of sight. All of which is pretty heavy freight for a comedy that’s been racing along with jokes about the characters’ sex lives and tastes in entertainment. Credit the fact that the laughs keep coming to Norris’ healthy sense of the absurd—and also to Pam MacKinnon’s savvy staging.
D.C. audiences have seen Naomi Jacobson create dozens of sharp-tongued comic harridans through the years, but none quite so deliriously over the top as her obliviously motormouthed Nancy. Ferociously insecure, and determined to camouflage that fact by never giving anyone a chance to get a word in edgewise, the character is subject to mood shifts that occur not just midsentence, but midword. Charles H. Hyman makes her industrialist hubby an unflappable foil, with an understated idiosyncracy or two of his own.
Tim Getman brings a decency and moral confusion to Father Dave that makes the character less a pedant than he seems initially, while Marni Penning radiates controlled hysteria (until she loses control) as his pampered, high-strung fiancée. As the alternately fiery and truculent kid who might have torched the school, Kofi Owusu is both empathetic and faintly scary, while John Livingstone Rolle’s deep-voiced, quick-witted Doctor gets laughs by playing his scenes at a lower octave and slightly slower speed than the others, possibly because the character can’t resist toking up whenever he’s left alone for a few seconds. The doctor is, more or less, the play’s moral center, while its moral fringe is inhabited by Dawn Ursula’s regal Aunty Mimi—a hip-swivelling, lip-curling, finger-snapping dictator who’s at once steely and sublime as she sashays to rhythms only she can hear.
Still, indicting her—or anyone else in the show—isn’t really the playwright’s point. Rather, Norris wants the audience to acknowledge a few hard truths—that the United States exploits the Third World and is willing to accept brutality when danger gets too close—while also noting a few caveats to those truths: the culpability of corrupt Third World governments, and the fact that the alternatives to brutality often prove painful.
And he wants to do all that while making the audience laugh, which has the slightly perverse effect of letting viewers off the hook. That “go home” at the outset is bookended by an exculpatory, “see, I told you” finish. It’s just theater, after all…no real harm done. But damn, is it funny.