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A CurtainUp Review
The Unmentionables

By Summer Banks

In nature there is the crocodile. Do we try to understand the crocodile? No, we bind the jaws so it can no longer bite. — Aunty Mimi on why it is important to consider force a viable option.
Jane (Kelly Hutchinson) and Nancy (Lisa Emery) in The Unmentionables
Jane (Kelly Hutchinson) and Nancy (Lisa Emery) in The Unmentionables
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
A lithe and wiry young man saunters down the stairs into the audience. He suggests that they go home. Despite questions like "How much you pay for this?" and admonitions to go watch TV, the lights descend. The youth takes his place on stage where he sullenly listens to a lecture from a missionary. The direct assault on the audience is redirected to the world of the play and sets the tone for the Yale Repertory Theater's rapid-fire, remarkably entertaining production of Bruce Norris' darkly comic The Unmentionables.

The tightly constructed plot unfolds in a palatial villa belonging to Don (Paul Vincent O'Connor) and Nancy (Lisa Emery), two Americans who run a factory in an unnamed village in western equatorial Africa. Their posh surroundings bring them into direct conflict with a second American couple Dave (Brian Hutchison) and Jane (Kelly Hutchinson), two missionaries who live in relative poverty among the villagers. Dave and Jane claim to represent the moral alternative to the specter of ignorant America symbolized by Don and Nancy. However, by the end of the evening, the play subverts even their own idealistic convictions.

The couples' conflict begins when Jane seeks treatment for her fibromyalgia from Don's doctor. She lies on the bed as The Doctor (Kenn E. Head) proceeds to tell her that she does not have anything physiologically wrong with her. She tries to update him on what she perceives to be his lack of modern medical knowledge while he laughs off her claims with the equally compelling evidence that no one in Africa appears to have this disease. On the other side of the stage, Dave is still lecturing Etienne (Jon Hill) — the young man who tried to get the audience to go home— on how Jesus Christ and his morals are actually "cool."

This overlapping proselytizing, be it for Western medicine, corrupt governments (represented by Ora Jones' firecracker Aunty Mimi) or Christianity, forms the play's structural basis. Director Anna D. Shapiro focuses its momentum in mass yelling matches that periodically punctuate the freight train of events. The arguments achieve a natural level of incomprehensibility, a sensation further heightened by the fact that at least five percent of the lines are spoken in French. The quarrels rarely remain logical or solitary, once one spat breaks out, it quickly spreads to another corner of the stage.

For all the play's self-conscious theatricality as evidenced by the meta-theatrical opening, it has a startling organic quality. The convoluted nature of the arguments and the nearly ridiculous interplay between the tragic and comic feel so normal that the few contrived moments stick out like lumps in an otherwise perfect cake. The only time Etienne's "How much you pay for this?" echoes in the production is when the tragic suddenly becomes funny again and the pathos isn't given enough time to truly resonate. But these moments are so miniscule they aren't worth enumerating. Between Norris' brilliant comic imagination and the cast's sense of timing, the production is ultimately satisfying.

With his keen eye for mindsets in contemporary America, Norris skewers the exploitative nouveau riche and naive idealists in the same breath. Jane explains that she became a missionary because she saw these faces "the color of my coffee" staring out of the front page of the paper. But now she's not sure that having some of the comforts of modern life would be so bad, even if her students go without. Hutchinson's sincerity is so compelling that her internal conflict succeeds in symbolizing the conflict in the younger American generation: They're hyper-aware of the problems across the globe but unsure of how to help while maintaining their own life styles. Brian Hutchison's pure, uncompromising, desperate-to-be-cool Dave is the most idealistic character in the play (he has to be at least 30 and he's still a virgin because of his Christian beliefs) and yet he still finds himself compromising his convictions. As Jane shrewdly points out, it's not horribly Christian to judge his contemporaries for not being committed a life of poverty.

The rest of the excellent ensemble follows the leads in creating vivid characters with multi-faceted, uncompromising humanity. The Doctor smokes pot, ditzy Nancy has a Mensa card and the soldiers (Sam Gordon and Chike Johnson) make casual pop-culture bets in between routine acts of violence.

Todd Rosenthal's set is spacious and evokes a sense of equatorial climate, The only reminder that the play is not just a sitcom is the menacing twelve foot fence topped with barbed wire encircling the otherwise pleasantly decorated villa. Further shading the environment, Ann G. Wrightson's lighting design creates the sensations of humidity, impending rain and developing world pollution. James Schuette's appropriately unremarkable costumes add texture to the environment and characters.

Mixing a diverse collection of elements together into one balanced mix, The Unmentionables is a beautiful piece of theater. It's current enough to feel relevant but concerns issues so universal that it escapes the fate of more disposable topical plays. It's challenging enough to transcend pure entertainment by questioning the line between the theatrical and "regular" in everyday life while still creating a perfectly enjoyable evening.

No matter how tempting it might be to listen to Etienne and retreat to the comfort of television at home, stay in your seat and bear in mind that all the cultural importance does not preclude pure entertainment. So watch out television — theater can beat you at your own game and still challenge the prevalent culture at a level you can only dream of achieving.

For a review of another well received Bruce Norris play, also directed by Anna Shapiro, see The Pain and the Itch
The Unmentionables
By Bruce Norris
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Cast: Lisa Emery (Nancy)
Sam Gordon (Soldier 2)
Kenn E. Head (The Doctor)
Jon Hill (Etienne)
Kelly Hutchinson (Jane)
Brian Hutchison (Dave)
Chike Johnson (Solider 1)
Ora Jones (Aunty Mimi)
Paul Vincent O'Connor (Don)
Set Design: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Design: James Schuette
Lighting Design: Ann G. Wrightson
Sound Design: Amy Altadonna
Running Time: 2 hours includes one 15 minute intermission
Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel Street (at York Street) New Haven, CT, 203.432.1234
From 5/04/07 to 5/26/07; opening 5/09/07
Tickets: Weekdays: Full $45.00; Senior $36.00; Student $22.50
Weekends: Full: $55.00; Senior $44.00; Student $27.50
Reviewed by Summer Banks on 5/09/07
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