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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
Living Room in Africa

By Elyse Sommer

The poverty here's unbelievable. I'll take you on a tour tomorrow. ---Marie, to her visiting brother.
A poverty tour? ---Mark
Yes, if you like it I can get some brochures printed up and start a small business. --- Marie, trying to humor him out of his obvious reservations about being in Africa.

Ana Reeder and Marsha Stephanie Blake
Ana Reeder and Marsha Stephanie Blake
(Photo: David Korins)
Somerset Maugham used to write stories and plays about British colonials living in Africa because of careers, missionary zeal, an attraction to the natural beauty of the land -- and not so incidentally, the luxurious life style made possible by abundantly available cheap labor. Playwright Bathsheba Doran has brought Maugham's tales up to date

While Doran's Brits, Marie (Ana Reeder) and Edward (Rob Campbell), are liberals for whom the idea of having even one black servant is embarrassing and requires justification, they haven't come to Africa without emotional baggage. The home they've rented from Michael Lee (Guy Boyd), an American who returned to Chicago after his bank closed the African branch he was managing, is the latest stop in residences far afield from their London roots.

Edward is a successful art collector and promoter and Marie has had some success as a short story writer. By all appearances they seem to be a happily married couple. But it doesn't take long to discover that not only aren't they married, but that they don't share the same bed. Their relationship, like the African landscape that now surrounds them, is not nearly as tranquil as our first encounter with Marie indicates. In fact, the foundation on which their life together is based and the well-intentioned project that brings them to Africa is an easily discernible symbol for the African AIDS crisis. As moving from country to country is a surface cure-all for Marie's emotional fragility, so Edward's well-intentioned installation of an art museum is not even a Band-Aid solution to alleviating poverty and the AIDS epidemic.

The museum, the building and launching of which Edward has come to Africa to oversee, is generously funded by wealthy do-gooders who feel that the museum will be a cause for hope and optimism. On a more practical level, the museum's construction and maintenance is expected to create jobs and attract other job opportunity generating enterprises.

In depicting Marie and Edward's symbiotic relationship within the framework of the tragedy that has for too many Africans turned the hope of their country's emergence from colonial oppression into hopelessness, Ms. Doran has created an absorbing parallel tragedy, with four additional characters to add to the play's complexities. Edge Theater's artistic director Carolyn Cantor and producing director and scenic designer David Korins have staged its world premiere beautifully and with actors who bring out both their characters' surfaces and the simmering fires underneath.

Anna Reeder, whose voice and face call to mind a younger and more delicate Kathleen Turner, oozes vulnerability and allows the changes she undergoes in the course of sixteen weeks to evolve organically. If you saw Small Tragedy, the 2004 Craig Lucas play at Playwrights Horizon, you'll realize that Campbell's Edward, though less politically conservative, has much in common with the Lucas play's artsy director whose troubled personal relationship was also shadowed by HIV. Edward is an intriguing character, a man of considerable charisma who has obviously been able to turn a bent for high-minded, artistic enterprise into a profitable career. There's no question that he cares deeply for Marie but there's clearly some need to dominate and control which may or may not have something to do with their sibling style living arrangement.

Bits and pieces of Marie and Edward's background are filled in through visit from Marie's brother Mark (Michael Chernus) at the play's beginning, and from Michael Lee their landlord (Guy Boyd). Both Chernus and Boyd do wonders with these small but larger than cameo roles. Mark's less than sanguine view of his sister's optimism about Edward's gallery project and Africa being the perfect place for her to write a novel, mirrors his less than rosy-eyed reaction to Africa. He's not the sort of conservative Brit who might yearn for the good old colonial days, but to him the end of that era has not left him with any burning desire to do anything about being involved with those countries. If it weren't for his sister, he would never visit Africa. The banker (Boyd), on the other hand loved the beauty of the country but he too is willing to look at his time in Africa as past history.

The realities of the AIDS epidemic in the village around their comfortable living room and from which the workers hired to build the gallery come, are brought home to Marie and Edward through Anthony (Maduka Steady), the construction foreman, and Nsugo (Marsha Stephanie Blake) whom Marie has hired to help around the house and to teach her to cook. As Edward, like Michael Lee before him, is hesitant to give in to Anthony's determination to use him as his ticket to America and away from his hopeless life, so Marie becomes consumed by the plight of the sliver thin Nsugo's plight (two children already dead from AIDS and two more dying).

Unlike, another play recently seen in the Theater Row's busy complex (Savages), Ms Doran has not made Marie and Edward idealistic stereotypes but people full of contradictions and unfathomable impulses -- nor has she introduced the subsidiary characters as mouth pieces for points of view. And, while this is a serious play, not a comedy, there is enough humorous dialogue to relieve the tension.

While the playwright has succumbed to using the Chekhov's gun device for a somewhat melodramatic climax, she has not settled for an ending with all the loose ends neatly tied together. Definitely a writer worth watching, starting with this play.

Playwright: Bathsheba Doran
Directed by Carolyn Cantor.
Cast: Marsha Stephanie Blake (Nsugo), Guy Boyd (Michael Lee), Rob Campbell (Edward), Michael Chernus (Mark) Ana Reeder (Marie), Maduka Steady (Nsugo).
Set Design: David Korins;
Costume Design: Jenny Mannis
Lighting Design: Matt Richards
Sound Design: Erin Shim
Original Nusic, Michael Friedman
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, includes one 10-minute intermission
>Edge Theater Company atBeckett Theater, 410 West 42nd 212/279-4200.
From 3/13/06 to 4/15/06; opening 3/22/06
Mon at 8pm, Wed through Sat at 8pm; Sat at 2pm and Sun at 7pm
Tickets: $35
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 22nd performance
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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