nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 30, 2006
Two years before David Lean brought Lawrence of Arabia to the screen, British playwright Terrence Rattigan put him on the stage, in a fascinating drama called Ross. Storm Theatre is presenting the first New York revival of this play (it was on Broadway back in 1961), and it's a privilege to see it. Park your memories of majestic camels crossing wide sun-bleached deserts, and open yourself up for this very different treatment of one of history's most enigmatic figures. In its way, Ross is every bit as epic as Lean's film.
It is, certainly, huge: two long acts spanning nearly three hours of running time, with about two dozen characters. Most of the play takes place in Arabia between the years 1916 and 1918, when T.E. Lawrence burst more or less out of nowhere and transformed himself from an obscure mapmaker to the charismatic leader of Arab tribes, united under his direction and by his will to fight their common enemy, the Ottoman Turks. We watch him prove himself with a series of terrorist attacks on Turkish targets; we eavesdrop on his first meeting with British General Allenby, whom he plays skillfully in order to wrest official sanction for his activities from the military; and we see him apply his massive powers of persuasion to an Arab chieftain named Auda Abu Tayi, whom he succeeds in winning over from the Turkish side, thus effecting his first significant victory at the town of Aqaba.
But the incidents of Lawrence's astonishing life are really only incidental in Ross: what Rattigan is really interested in, and what he makes tantalizing to us in the audience, is the nature of this extraordinary man. Who was T.E. Lawrence? When we meet him at the beginning of the play, it's 1922, and he's going under the name Ross; he's enlisted in the Royal Air Force under this pseudonym, hoping not to be detected despite his enormous fame. This is what really happened; what Rattigan wants to uncover in Ross is why it happened. No one, of course, can ever know for sure. But the play offers us acres of intriguing information to help us start to figure it out.
What contradictions exist in this man! He's astoundingly and arrogantly fearless, but we frequently see moments of what he himself would call flinching cowardice: he's fashioned himself into a soldier, but he can't bear to kill anyone. He's not a proud man; indeed, his immense self-doubt manifests itself in a kind of self-flagellation, even self-destruction. But he's vain: he loves looking at himself in the mirror. He's a masterful manipulator of men, using his sharp intellect and passion to drive others to his will. But can he ever work that magic on himself?
Or is all the public humility just a pose, put on and then cast aside as it suits his purpose?
Rattigan shows us where it might be, and shows us where it resolutely, painfully could not be. That's the power of this remarkable play.
Ross is unfortunately somewhat uneven: there's perhaps too much brittle repartee of the kind that peppers Rattigan's better-known works (such as Separate Tables or The Sleeping Prince); it feels jarring delivered by military types in the middle of World War I. But as a character study, Ross is dazzlingly potent and devastating. If nothing else, it will make you hungry to learn more about this enigmatic man.
Storm Theatre's decision to tackle this enormous play suggests some of the audacity of Lawrence himself. It pays off, though: given the resources available to an indie theater company, this production is solid. Artistic director Peter Dobbins takes on the mammoth role of Ross, and he gives a fine reading of Rattigan's protagonist, full of nuance and psychological complexity; he nails the man's loneliness, which may be the most important thing we finally understand about him here. A large ensemble, often double-cast, portrays the many characters with whom Lawrence comes in contact; especially memorable are George Taylor as General Allenby (so comfortable in the role that he feels like he just stepped out of a vintage British war film); Tim Smallwood, Gabe Levey, and Matthew Waterson as three of Ross's colleagues in the RAF, and Seán Gormley as his Flight Sergeant; Storm regular Josh Vasquez as Hamed, Lawrence's Arab bodyguard; and Edward Prostak as the by-the-book Colonel Barrington, who is briefly Lawrence's nemesis. The only real weakness in the casting is Joe Danbusky's turn as Lawrence's enemy/soulmate, the Turkish Military Governor who finally manages to capture him: Danbusky simply lacks the authority and presence to register as a suitable match to Dobbins's Lawrence.
Production values are modest but serve the work nicely. Stephen Logan Day keeps the long play moving briskly, and manages its complexity with apparent ease; it's a confident, sensitive staging that holds us riveted from its startling opening scenes to its surprisingly touching close.
Ross is one of those big, under-the-radar, potentially unwieldy plays that is unlikely to ever see Broadway again; it just wouldn't be economically viable, even if a major star committed to it. So we're lucky that indie companies like the Storm are ready and able to show us a terrific piece of theatre that's vital and vibrant storytelling and baldly pertinent to boot. There's another story of Lawrence of Arabia besides the one we know from the film; it's absolutely worth checking out.