nytheatre.com review by Nancy Kim
October 7, 2008
Waiting for the performance to begin, the audience has ample time to ponder the set: an upscale but nondescript hotel room. Its anonymity leaves no clues and we are left anticipating who will be inhabiting this room. Upon entering, a middle-aged man heads straight for the bar while a young woman awkwardly stands still. In these few minutes, we are left wondering who these people are, who they are to each other, and what brings them to this hotel room.
Those questions are answered, although we are helpless voyeurs to the brutal and violent action on stage.
Making its New York premiere at the always reliable Soho Rep, Blasted is a major work by Sarah Kane, a playwright whose personal biography has often preceded her work. Kane took her own life at 27, before her notoriety as a dramatist soon began drawing comparisons to Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill.
Blasted, indeed, is quite Pinteresque. In this production, Ian (Reed Birney), a tabloid journalist, brings the young Cate (Marin Ireland) to resume a sexual relationship. In addition to her young age, Cate is still a child mentally: she is prone to suck her thumb and stutter when anxious. And when the ambiguous history of their relationship is revealed, we start to understand Ian's domineering control and Cate's acceptance of the situation. While Ian forces Kate to perform different sexual acts, there are also moments signaling other aspects of their complex relationship: his fatherly concern—albeit, cruel—and his desperate declarations of love; Cate's concerns for Ian's health.
Meanwhile, outside the hotel room, an unnamed war is taking place on the streets (the location, though, is set in Leeds). Despite arming himself with a gun, Ian and Cate mostly ignore what's going outside. When morning comes—after what we assume was a violent and forced act, judging from the nature of the room—the war outside intrudes into the room by way of a soldier with a much bigger gun—and the tremendous blast that bombs the hotel.
In a great theatrical feat, the pristine hotel room has transformed into a bombed-out nightmare. Surviving the blast, Ian and the unnamed soldier establish a relationship paralleling Ian and Cate's with its violence and brutality, though it goes much further in its gory, Greek-tragedy levels. We witness helplessly again the capacity of savagery and destruction, though Kate's eventual return undermines the playwright's assaultive nihilism.
In creating these scenes, director (and Soho Rep's artistic director) Sarah Benson does not spare the audience from its unrelenting violence, although she maintains the tension and dread throughout. The cast, all New York stage veterans, is remarkable.
Problematic for me is the soldier who is darker and speaks in some undefined ethnic accent. Though actor Louis Cancelmi gives a terrifying performance, I sensed the playwright wishing to make some statement about the state of the world where the "brown other" gives what they have been getting, but I could not resolve the racist and homophobic implications.
Nonetheless, this production does not mean to make it easy for us. The situation, imagery, and unchecked brutality confront us as theatregoers who are accustomed to watching safely from our seats.