A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 10, 2011
Dorota Maslowska is apparently one of the hottest young writer/playwrights in Poland. She was born in 1983, which means that she was just a child when the Communist regime fell; she's grown up in a post-Soviet Eastern Europe whose sensibility has not yet been surveyed much on the American stage. Which is why East River Commedia's NYC premiere of her first play, A Couple of Poor Polish-Speaking Romanians, is meritorious and worth your notice: we just don't have enough exposure to the contemporary/pop culture of this part of the world, certainly not in the form of original drama.
A Couple of Poor Polish-Speaking Romanians tells the story of Blighty and Gina, whom we watch in a wild, scary, disturbing spree across Poland in a single, event-filled day and night. When we first meet them, they are commandeering the car of a buttoned-up, straitlaced, middle-aged man, in what amounts to an act of terror: when he tries to get help from a passing policeman, they bluff the cop into believing that the driver is their father, sick with Alzheimer's. This opening scene, which lasts an uncomfortably long 35 minutes or so, establishes the desperation and utterly devalued attitudes of the title characters, and contrasts them sharply with the more rigid and conventional ideas of the driver. They're hard to like, these two drugged-up crazies from Romania—and they're resistant to pity.
And then, in the play's second scene, things alter alarmingly. Blighty, no longer under the influence, now says he's a TV actor, and that he needs to be on the set by 8 o'clock the next morning. Gina recalls having left her son at day care a few days ago, but isn't sure her mother picked him up. And both seem not to be Romanian at all. Their adventures turn darker as they lose whatever control they once had over their situation: they try to get assistance at a pub, to no avail; they get picked up on the road by a woman on the run with more or less tragic results; and then finally they wander into a spooky desolate house occupied by a character known only as "Geezer." At this point I began to wonder if they had actually died and if the play might be a No Exit-like parable about existentialism. I don't think that's the case, but Maslowska's play feels very much to be about our inability to help each other and ourselves; everybody's on their own in a world that's rottenly dog-eat-dog.
Paul Bargetto's production of the play includes an alienating layer of multimedia that detaches us from the plights of Blighty and Gina. There are three TV sets on the stage, often displaying live video feeds of action elsewhere on stage and sometimes showing pre-recorded footage, often a mashup of TV iconography of decades past. The TVs, center stage (and programmed live, from a MacBook, by the assistant director Stephanie Shipp, who sits in the middle of the set for most of the play), push the live action to corners of the playing area; and of course steal focus much of the time, because flickering light attracts our eye. The multimedia display is part of a very busy set created by Doris Mirescu, and feels very much akin to the style of her own works.
Troy Lavallee and Robin Singer take the title roles of Blighty and Gina, and bring energy and compassion to their portrayals. One thing I noticed in reading some of the materials provided in the press kit is that in the British production of Maslowska's play, these two characters seem to have been rendered more ambiguous—it was apparently not clear whether the Romanian selves they present in Scene I or the troubled Polish selves that emerge later are in fact the "real" ones. I didn't feel any of that ambiguity in the work of Bargetto, Lavallee, and Singer, and wonder if the play would have felt different if I had.
Rounding out the company are Robert Saietta as the manic driver, Nora Woolley as the woman on the run, and Amanda Broomell, Herbie Go, and Stevie Conroy in smaller roles. The translation is by Benjamin Paloff, a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Michigan. Bravo for his effort, and indeed to all these artists for showing us a new play from a European country where English isn't the primary language.