nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 29, 2007
Barbara Tusenbach is having a bad day. Her husband of five years, John, has left her for "some slut with a boob job." And there is a rough-and-tumble looking 16th century Spanish conquistador sitting on her living room couch with his grubby boots up on her coffee table. Barbara immediately recognizes that he isn't real, but merely "a delusionary fragment of a repressed childhood primal picture book memory..." But, still: it's not every day one finds a conquistador named El Tigre sitting in one's apartment.
And thus begins Jim Knable's fanciful new romantic comedy, Spain, which is currently receiving a very enjoyable production from MCC Theater. Of course, it helps that Knable's play is pretty good. It's a little too long, and goes astray in certain places, but it has a big heart, it's really funny, and it displays a vivid (and mostly well-utilized) imagination. This generally successful production also gives its star, Annabella Sciorra, a chance to strut her stuff as she never has before.
Once El Tigre appears, Barbara's subconscious is off and running. She calls in sick to work to hear her houseguest's story—how he got there, where he came from—and admits that she is "not attracted to him in the traditional sense." But, attracted to him she is, and to all of Spanish culture, in fact. Barbara's unfulfilled lifelong dream is to visit Spain, and El Tigre's presence helps sate that desire somewhat.
For his part, El Tigre's history involves a lot of raping and pillaging: "Conquering. It is a great feeling," he tells the audience at one point. "Meeting uncivilized people. Killing them, making them your slaves, what not." His story also involves a mysterious old shaman descriptively named Ancient, who appears frequently to dispense wisdom, some of it humorously obvious. (When El Tigre asks why Barbara won't sleep with him, Ancient plainly answers, "Because you told her you're a rapist.")
Once the situation is established, however, Spain starts throwing in the twists. Barbara's co-worker, Diversion, who lives vicariously through her friend, pays a visit and can see and hear El Tigre as plain as day. So maybe he's not a figment of Barbara's imagination after all?
Then, Barbara's wayward husband unexpectedly returns home. From there, Knable launches Spain into much unexpected territory that keeps the audience guessing every step of the way.
The author has a lot of fun with the culture clash between Barbara and El Tigre, as well as their mounting sexual tension. He also does a good job keeping viewers in the dark about whether El Tigre is real or imaginary, and builds both the increasingly exuberant Barbara and the melancholy Diversion from the ground up with nicely illuminating details. Knable gets into a little bit of trouble in Act II—an extended portion of which feels like he dropped acid, then started reading John Patrick Shanley's The Big Funk while listening to flamenco music—but, again, there is so much imagination on display that one can easily forgive any missteps.
Director Jeremy Dobrish sprinkles the production with playful physical comedy and lots of sight gags that heighten the play's inherent humor. He is well served by his fine cast, who throw themselves into Spain with gusto. Leading the charge is Sciorra's terrific performance as Barbara. The actress's well-documented slow-burn sex appeal notwithstanding, Spain gives Sciorra a chance to show how funny, charming, and just all-around endearing she is. She brings a previously unseen screwball sensibility to her work here that ranks as a keen bit of career reinvention on her part.
Michael Aronov is a similarly breakout force as El Tigre, bringing a swarthy macho fullness to the role that is both hilarious and alluring. It's easy to see why Barbara wants to hang out with this guy. There are certain sections of Spain that Aronov takes such total control of, especially when we first meet him in Act I, that I wouldn't be surprised if he's a future star in the making.
The invaluable Veanne Cox evokes much yearning restraint as Diversion, and Lisa Kron and Erik Jensen, playing multiple roles including Ancient and John, respectively, detonate many a satisfying chuckle with their earnestly deadpan comic work here.
Spain is a disarmingly good time at the theatre, and marks Knable as a writer to keep an eye on in the future. Kudos to MCC Theater for giving audiences yet another reliably splendid production.