By Patrick Hurley
White American privilege, a topic of much discussion as of late, completely propels the narrative of Barcelona, a new play by Bess Wohl, making its West Coast Premiere at the Geffen Playhouse. The story takes place four years after the Madrid train bombings, which were a terrorist retaliation against American aggression in Iraq, a tragedy that severely heightened anti-American sentiments throughout Spain.
Irene (Betty Gilpin), an American tourist in Barcelona, at the start of the play has come to the home of a Spaniard named Manuel (Carlos Leal) a man she has just met at a bar. Irene is highly intoxicated and the two have sex. Afterward, as the alcohol starts to adversely affect Irene, the two engage in small talk that quickly starts to turn personal. In what, at first seemed reminiscent of one of Linklater’s Before films, becomes a series of whiny tangents that turns Irene into all of the awful qualities of a stereotypically privileged American from Denver, Colorado. She is suffering from severe first world problems, and she doesn’t stop talking long enough for anything to stick. It’s like throwing a series of darts onto a wall that has no dart board, it’s impossible to care if they land or not. And, in fact, we just want to stop listening.
Manuel, on the other hand, says very little. He seems to be annoyed by Irene, and he looks as though he wants her to stop talking, but he also seems unreasonably forgiving of her sometimes insane behavior. As the evening progresses, the conversation between the two becomes more and more personal, however, it’s revelatory of very little. There are some reveals that seem to want to be a-ha moments, but due to a series of narrative flaws, they become more writer convenience than inevitable necessities.
The story has two glaring issues that it can’t overcome. First, is Irene. She is a character who elicits no empathy because she comes across as an overly spoiled woman, who thinks the world owes her something. So when she has to make a painful decision near the end of the play, it’s not earned. We feel way more for the person on the other end of the situation than we can for her. Second, the progression of the story is a series of red herrings. Everything seems to be unreliable. Things we think we know, we really don’t. The play is a two-hander, and both are unreliable narrators. Irene because she’s so drunk, among other things, and Manuel for a series of revelations that lead to a bizarre climactic scene that entirely shifts the tone of the piece. Both characters are caught in lies, which is ironic considering the best line of the play comes early on when Manuel tells Irene “I’m sorry, I don’t know you well enough to lie to you.” A sentiment that clearly doesn’t hold up a mere twenty minutes later. So we’re left not really knowing who to listen to, or why we’re listening at all. Even if the intended effect, which it most assuredly is, is to have Irene come off as an annoying American tourist, she goes so far over-the-top that no actress, no matter how talented, can overcome it by the ending.
Director Trip Cullman is great at staging the intimate moments, and the with the help of clever lighting, by designer Japhy Weideman, creates mood and tone quite successfully. Scenic designer Mark Wendland, likewise, creates a great space and backdrop that sets the right feel for this time and place.
Playwright Bess Wohl has created a piece about white American privilege, that strangely garners a little anti-American sentiment all its own. She has dramatized a woman’s self-inflicted plight, a woman who has created turmoil for herself, and seems to want to pass that off as a deep and profound exploration of humanity. And while she does sprinkle in a fair amount of humor in the first thirty minutes of the show, it’s by no means satirizing any foreign idea of a typical “American”. We simply don’t have enough psychological understanding of Irene to know why she behaves the way she does, and so we chalk it up to…well, that’s just how all privileged, spoiled Americans are. Isn’t it?
West Coast Premiere
Written by Bess Wohl
Directed by Trip Cullman
Monday No Performance
Tuesday – Friday 8:00 pm
Saturday 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm
Saturday 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm
Ticket prices are currently $32 to $82 and are available in-person at the Geffen Playhouse box office, via phone at 310.208.5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.com. Fees may apply.
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024