nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
October 31, 2009
If you're up for thorough contemplation of genuine conscience, with a satisfying catharsis, then head over to the Flea for The Misunderstanding.
The plot is deceptively simple. A mother and daughter are caretakers of a small inn. They often murder their wealthy customers to sustain a living. The son of the family, who has been gone for many years, returns but decides not to reveal his identity. The outcome is inevitable. But bubbling beneath the surface is a play dwelling deeply on questions of ethics, identity, and meaning.
Wendy Allegaert gives a subtle and compelling performance as Martha, who has never left the little inn she runs with her mother, and longs to see the ocean and explore new horizons. Allegaert's distinctly spare and honest performance style is especially effective as the play goes on. Her intentional detachment from the language is apparent from the start, but leading up to her emergence as an independent being, she is grounded and visceral. I wish I could see more actors like Allegaert on the stage. The costume designer Amanda Bujak deserves mention here, for added clarity to Martha's awakening from sheltered girl to woman by having her covered up in woolen layers to start, but in a dress in the final act.
Martha's foil, her mother, played by Ellen Crawford, brings all the overbearing frustrated maternity one could ask for. Clearly an actress of experience, Crawford navigates the thick text with unparalleled innovation and ease. As the returning son Jan, Rafael De Mussa does not quite thoroughly embody the logical twists and turns of his endless vacillation to make them tangible. But it makes sense that contemplation of action, inherently inactive, is overridden by the active pursuits of Martha.
Stuart Rudin as the Manservant is a silent relief from the contemplative noise of the other characters. Galumphing around, putting lights in the saucers for evening, his consistent strut and unmoving face are genuinely enjoyable.
Director Alex Lippard has some especially wonderful ways of using the wide and shallow downstairs space at the Flea. Sometimes I would have an actor's face one or two feet in front of me for a short speech, a delightful, atypical theatre experience. Also, there are a number of sequences that feel cinematic; in particular one moment between the mother and daughter using diagonal depth felt like a beautiful fast zoom in. Michael Moore's set design also contributes largely to the dynamic imagery. Cups and saucers (which are used to poison the guests of the inn) line the perimeter of a dented black space. This is a demented world dotted with death.
Whether a result of Camus's writing or the translation by Jack O'Brien, the language of the play is incredibly convoluted. It is a clear obstacle for many of the actors to connect with. I found it a stark contrast to the beautiful simplicity and subtle implications of Camus's famous novel The Stranger, where detachment is present in the un-emotive narrative style, while here characters have extensive emotional diatribes about their inner conflicts, even about their lack of emotion. The purpose of this might be to indicate that there is something inauthentic about claiming to have detached from feeling totally as a human, but that seems incongruous with the overall absolutist terms used about conscience.
The current political implications of the play are quite clear. A program note reminds us that this play was first performed in occupied Paris in 1943, but the call for conscience still resonates today. We fail to realize that our fellow humans are our brothers, and will kill them in the name of our interests. In the face of this, by continuing to live we continue to be a party to barbarity, and out of necessity detach from any real feeling. To ignore, thereby accept, and even finance, the persistent murder and cruelty in our world means that we can only achieve happiness by becoming utterly callous. To continue to live, we must make our hearts stone. We block off that awful portion of reality where senseless violence is rampant, where wanton cruelty is occurring in the name of our interests, yet we still have the audacity to consider ourselves conscientious, moral; human.
At the point where these ideas are being developed, near the end of the play, the language feels totally engaged and connected with the ideas it is presenting. It remains heightened, but is fitting. Maybe all of the previous noxious ornamented verbiage functions merely to accommodate the audience to that style, so by the time the more substantive ideas need to be expressed, the audience has the ears to hear it?
A fascinating sub-motif is the continuous insistence on the part of Martha and her mother that their actions of self-interested, while their demeanor, and their over-assurance of that fact, indicates they are in some way inauthentic in their selfishness. On the same token, although the premise rests on Martha and her mother being unaware of the son's identity, it almost seems in the way they interact with him as though they are somehow, however unconsciously, aware of it. These and other intentionally mystifying components make the play all the richer and more thought-provoking.
The Misunderstanding is conceptually clear, and features some skillful acting in its core moments, but its labyrinthine prose often undercuts its many strengths.