nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 4, 2008
Two Rooms was written by Lee Blessing in 1988, and since 9/11, it's been done frequently off-off-Broadway. That's because it feels like it should be enormously relevant: it's about a teacher at an American college in Beirut who is taken hostage by an (unnamed) terrorist group in Lebanon. While he awaits an uncertain fate (rescue? execution?) in a series of barren cells, his wife keeps the home fires burning the best she can, by creating a cell of her own, as much like his prison as she can imagine, in what used to be his office. She's being handled by a dispassionate State Department official, and she's simultaneously being courted by an aggressive news reporter who wants her to "go public" with her story.
As I said, it feels like this ought to be somehow hugely resonant in the post-9/11 world, but in fact the play succeeds only insofar as it imagines the inner lives of the hostage and his wife, trying to cope with something that is beyond imagination and beyond awful. Scenes alternate between Michael's "room" in Lebanon and Lainie's "room" in America, and especially in Michael's monologues we are allowed to contemplate the boundaries of human courage and fortitude, as the hostage uses his imagination and a remarkably deep well of love to survive under impossible circumstances. Blessing seems to have real insight here—I wondered if he talked to people who had been in similar situations, or had done other kinds of research because the portrait he paints of Michael feels completely authentic in its paradoxical vulnerability and resilience. (Anger is largely absent, interestingly.) There is, for example, a striking moment when he notes that he no longer has any way to be absolutely certain that he's alive. Whatever we can do to make sure "innocent" people never suffer the way that Michael and Lainie do in this play becomes the most important takeaway from Two Rooms.
The politics, though, don't pack much punch. It's implied that Ellen, the State Department caseworker, is heartless and manipulative—fair enough, but this feels hackneyed rather than incisive. And Walker, the reporter, is portrayed as a ruthlessly competitive crusader in search of Truth, which may have been more in line with what we thought about the media in the '80s but doesn't scan well today. The plot, which revolves around Lainie's decision to place her trust in Walker, seems merely naive, especially in contrast to the rest of the play.
This production is a debut for Platform Theatre Group, whose stated mission is to employ artists and engage audiences. They're accomplishing this, though I'm not sure the specific choices in this particular case are all ideal. Michael Laurence delivers the most compelling performance as Michael, creating a complete, utterly sympathetic human being. Angela Christian is disappointing as Lainie, however, failing to flesh out this character beyond surface emotions. Patrick Boll is believable as Walker, but Adinah Alexander's Ellen is excessively detached, especially in a few scenes in the second act where there are real opportunities for her to finally reveal herself more fully. Peter Flynn's direction seems mostly unobtrusive. The set by Kevin Judge, which juxtaposes the two rooms into a single space, is effective, as are the other design elements (costumes by Jennifer Caprio, lighting by Thom Weaver, and sound by Scott Stauffer).