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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
In the Garden

This is an intimacy between us, not to be seen, not to be paraded in some undressed state. . .You must trust me, Andrew, if I am to trust you because what we are about is delicate. Really quite delicate. Can I trust you?— Minister of Culture Fawaz Othman to American architect Andrew Hackett
There has been more than a little bit of ballyhoo over the play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Rajiv Joseph's play about the liberation of Iraq. So steady has been the acclaim since the play's world premiere last year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre that Center Theatre Group will be bringing Bengal Tiger back with its original cast and director Moises Kaufman to the Mark Taper Forum in April. With respect to Mr. Joseph, whose play I found talky and flawed, the next great play to be written about relations in the Middle East has come from the pen of Howard Korder. It is titled In a Garden and it is being produced on the smaller Argyros Stage at Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory through this weekend. And both this play and this production richly deserve an afterlife.

In a Garden is a tough to classify, four character opus about the relationship between two people who are trying to build something together. But Korder, (whose The Hollow Lands and Search and Destroy both premiered at SCR) has far more on his mind than architectural renderings.

Within the delicate dance between Fawaz Othman, the minister of Culture for the fictional Aqaat (read Iraq) and Andrew Hackett, the American architect Othman commissions to build a summer house, Korder has spun a multi-layered meditation. On the table are issues of friendship, of diplomacy, of innocence both lost and coveted and of the desperate need to create a thing of beauty when all around you the world is turning to offal. Our prism may be an American looking to make a name for himself, but the moral center of Korder's byzantine landscape is a man so conflicted and enigmatic that our determination whether he is human or monster is nearly an 11th hour surprise. That the character in question is embodied by the always interesting actor/playwright Mark Harelik (Lost Highways, The Immigrant) raises the stakes even further. Harelik's is a performance that should haunt any theater-goer who has the good fortune to see it.

Not that we're initially in any way certain that In a Garden will take us anywhere of substance. Othman (Harelik) has summoned Hackett (Matt Letscher) to the Ministry of Culture to discuss, in the vaguest possible terms, an architectural commission. The year is 1989 and Othman's early musings on American pop culture (particularly the film Dead Poet's Society) call to mind Andrey Botvinnik, the Soviet arms negotiator in Lee Blessing's A Walk in the Woods. Fortunately, nothing about life in Aqaat is the least bit frivolous, and Hackett and Othman soon get down to business.

Well, they sort of do. It takes Othman more than a year to tell Hackett what precisely he wants built and several years more to sign off on renderings. Othman considers himself an expert on aesthetics and the summer house/gazebo he covets is specific &mdash and probably unattainable &mdash on a number of levels. Hackett badly wants this commission, but he'll only put up with his patron's murky dilettantism for so long. "You are my architect. I will build you," Othman informs Hackett not very comfortingly.

The six years that In a Garden spans sees political upheaval and a breakdown in U.S.-Aqaat relations. As time wears on, Othman is forced to play his hand so close to his immaculately tailored vest (excellent costumes all around by David Kay Mickelson) that they're practically surgically attached to the man's aorta. And our fast despairing American must ultimately meet with Najid (Jarion Monroe), the Aqaati dictator to whom Othman owes a complicated alliance.

When we finally learn the nature of this alliance, Harelik's already multi-layered performance develops additional nuance. Playing a man so full of regret, loss and compromise that he seems to be being devoured from the inside, Harelik makes the character age before our very eyes. This is a performance that asks for no shred of sympathy or understanding; Othman does not get an explanatory epilogue. Instead, there is a rather deft scene in a ruined encampment between Hackett and a pragmatic U.S. Army Captain Phillip Vaden).

The very appearance of this bombed out landscape is a bit of triumph for set designer Christopher Barreca who had set all the previous Othman-Hackett-Najid meetings on a smog begrimed ministry balcony resembling an Egyptian monolith. The men sip drinks at an elegant patio table. Appearances, and aesthetics, are important here. Letscher, his clothes and facial hair modifying to fit the dawn of the new millennium, gives Hackett a nice degree of ambition and ethics. It may take Hackett a while to learn how to play the game these politics demand &mdash or, indeed, what game is being played &mdash but this guy will figure it out. Monroe's Najid is another notch in the actor's belt of characters who are formidable and occasionally terrifying.

Najid and Harelik shared the stage when Korder's Search and Destroy debuted at SCR in 1989. Three years later, that play became Korder's first and only Broadway credit, although the playwright has enjoyed some off Broadway and regional success. I would also note that when Search and Destroy played the Circle in the Square in 1992, it arrived not with Mark Harelik, but with Griffin Dunne who would also play the role in the film. Should In a Garden have the good fortune to travel east, Mark Harelik should accompany it. A remarkable play and an equally remarkable performance should be as inseparable as, oh, an architect and his top secret blueprints.

Directed by David Warren
Cast: Mark Harelik (Othman), Matt Letscher (Hackett), Jarion Monroe (Najid), Phillip Vaden (Proudhomme)
Stage Manager: Jennifer Ellen Butler
Set Design: Christopher Barreca
Costume Design: David Kay Mickelson
Lighting Design: Lap Chi Chu
Original Music/Sound Design: Vincent Olivieri
Music Director/additional arrangements: Steve Orich
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Julian Argyros Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa
From March 7 to March 28
Tue-Sat. @ 7:45pm, Sat. @ 2 pm, Sun. @ 2 and 7:45 pm
Reviewed by Evan Henerson, based on March 19 performance.
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