No End of Blame
nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
June 27, 2007
One of the enjoyably clever things about No End of Blame is its title. It can be taken several ways. While there is no end of blame for its main character, (a political cartoonist named Bela Veracek), there is also no end to the blame radiating from him. Somehow playwright Howard Barker assumes that the multiplicity of meanings he uses throughout will be clear and cogent, and for the title at least, that is true. But as a play somewhat longer than a title, it should go somewhere or have something change or develop to justify the length. Despite a very thoughtful production by the Potomac Theater Project and being set in some interesting times, this play never quite moves on from the title premise. The single-minded nature of the piece and static characters make it difficult to remain committed to it, and when not given a reason to care, I didn't much. Luckily, especially in Act Two of this production, there are some very strong performances and I suspect this is a production that will grow to fill in the humanity that the script lacks.
No End of Blame is a particularly British play, the kind that blends a restrained form of agitprop with one man's struggle against the establishment, the writing full of specifically British historical and social content. Bela Veracek is an ex-soldier from the First World War who gleefully leaves art school to become a political cartoonist because "My Art speaks...now I know I am a genius...I stirred the police, therefore I touched the Truth." This egocentric force within him continues (with progressively less glee) as the play follows Bela's experiences at the hands of overtly repressive regimes in the Soviet Union and covertly repressive regimes in wartime and post-ration Britain. Along the way, a broad range of minor characters seek to make their own forms of adjustment to oppressions under Bela's withering eye and the strength of the ensemble playing those characters persists against the play's single-mindedness.
Single minded and also very male-centric, No End of Blame has a smattering of objectified female characters. While director Richard Romagnoli perhaps was seeking to offset this aspect by cross-casting some of the ensemble parts, it is hard to get past every female character in the play being narrowly defined by how her presence serves the men in the scene. The first scene, set during the war, is most blatant. In it, while his friend is trying to draw an unnamed female hostage, Bela decides to rape her. In essence, first scene—Grigor wants to draw her, Bela wants what he calls the "petty theft" of raping her, and the unnamed female character, who has no lines and is pure cipher, disappears as soon as the point her presence created was made. The play starts off with a rape for purely metaphorical impact, and saves the emotional content of the scene for one man to save the life of another who had done him wrong. That incidental juxtaposition of female characters continues with a partially naked female model and the brief existence of Bela's wife. At play's end, Dr. Glasson (effectively played by the very talented Megan Byrne) almost gets around being female, except that I do suspect Barker only made the character a woman so that Bela could get a consoling hug.
For most of the production, Romagnoli uses the company's experience with the play (its first production of No End of Blame was in the mid-'80s) to good effect. Relying heavily on the considerable talents of Byrne, Christopher Duva, Alex Cranmer, and Peter B. Schmitz in variety of effective and specific smaller roles, he conveys a panorama of characters and locales clearly. With some stellar work by ensemble members Alec Strum and Lucas Kavner, a very strong sense of British social mores and values comes through in the British scenes. However, despite this clarity of place and people, it still isn't clear why the piece keeps going on. Scene after scene of Bela against "the Establishment" is presented, long after the point has been made that every society has its censors—both official and internal. Bela himself (played with firm although perhaps too internal focus by the talented Alex Draper) seems to continue largely impervious to others or the events around him and, as written, he is egotistically unappealing. This is a heck of a burden to place on the central character.
The Potomac Theater Project has a commitment to redefining political theater. Based on the skill and intelligence in this production, they could be a welcome return to the New York theatre scene with other material. No End of Blame is a play fraught with ideas but when the ideas lack blood—where they don't seem innately connected to the character expressing them—as they do here, they cease to engage theatrically. PTP has the smarts to do political theatre well; it will be interesting to see them develop passion.