nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 24, 2009
Ashlin Halfnight's new play Balaton is the finest work yet from this talented young playwright; it's also one of the best new American plays of 2009.
When we arrive in the theatre, there are actors already on stage, positioned among rows of what look like oversized white gravestones. But the fact that one of the actors keeps reaching inside one of the presumed grave-markers and maneuvering a bunch of noisy metal objects stowed within throws us off. Where are these people? What is this somber, stylized set (designed by Jennifer de Fouchier) supposed to represent?
The lights go down, the play proper begins, and we enter the startling world of Balaton. The time is sometime in the future: we figure this out slowly, from information gradually gleaned that indicates that the young man on stage was married shortly after the fall of Communism in his native Hungary (around 1991) and is now (that is, at the time of this play) a grandfather. So we're ten or more years beyond the present. The tumultuous changes that happened with the Iron Curtain came down and Hungary began its move towards capitalism/Westernization are an important aspect of Balaton: the young man who is the play's chief character, an English/poetry professor named Daniel who left Budapest for the United States at around this time, is influenced more than he understands or will admit by the sudden arrival of McDonald's and other American cultural signposts in his homeland.
Mostly, though, the play is concerned with more fundamental issues. What do we lose as we pull away from our past, our families, our heritage and embrace something different and/or new? Who owns the memories—personal and collective—that are subsequently discarded, rearranged, or just misremembered?
Daniel lived with his mother up until the time he went to America. His mother was the proud caretaker of his late father's memory: Daniel's dad had been an Olympic athlete (in both the Montreal and Munich games). It was because of this achievement that Daniel came to, and was able to, learn English.
More details: Daniel left Budapest with Vivian, who became his wife. Vivian was a philosophy professor, and it was when she was offered a teaching position at Duke University—one that would pay many times what she could make in Hungary—that she and Daniel were able to leave for the United States.
Daniel's mother, Margit, dislikes Vivian intensely. She knows something about her, something that Vivian did that turned Margit against her. What was it? And Vivian knows something about Margit's past, too.
All the while, a little girl named Sabrina—someone who Vivian says is her (and Daniel's) granddaughter—looks on from the audience at the conversations and actions playing out on stage. She's American. Does she belong with her Hungarian relatives?
I don't want to give away the answers to the several mysteries that are central to Halfnight's intense and delicate play. I do want to make sure that you understand that the relationships among his characters, and their relationships with the places they live and the ghosts/ancestors who hover unseen around them, are incisively and tenderly drawn, filled with complexity and conflictedness.
Balaton is brilliantly directed by Kristjan Thor, who sustains suspense and emotion without ever weighing down the proceedings unnecessarily. The design is spare and simple, with evocative lighting by Kathleen Dobbins and video projections by Alex Koch and Kate Chumley, and a seamless soundscape provided by Joel Bravo and Mark Sanders. The performances are gripping: Daniel O'Brien and Kathryn Kates are outstanding as Daniel and his difficult mother, Margit, while Jessica Cummings remains sympathetic against the odds as Vivian. Peter O'Connor is memorable in a smaller role, that of Julian, who we discover is Daniel's son. Young actresses Sadie K. Scott and Charlotte Williams alternate as Sabrina.
I love Balaton because it both tantalizes and challenges audiences to take it apart and to discover for themselves the mysteries and profound truths it contains. And the themes it addresses—about memory, history, and transformations—remind us of what we too often take for granted in our lives, and what is truly important.