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A CurtainUp Review

By Simon Saltzman

The death squads were for death, you understand? A death squad’s mission is the conversion of the living to the dead.
--- Raoul de Raoul, a Central American Dictator, at his trial in a civil court in Florida.

Although the scene appears to be a rather non-descript bedroom, the action in Lee Blessing’s new play Whores actually takes place in the hallucinating mind of Raoul de Raoul (Jonathan Cantor), a retired General of an unnamed Central American country now living in Florida where he has been granted amnesty from prosecution on charges of committing atrocities. Married with children, Raoul’s head is swirling with fantastical images and horrific memories, notably the rape and murder of three nuns and a lay worker by his death squad. Presented as a series of outrageously perverse sexual encounters, punctuated by his self-incriminating anxieties, denials and delusions, the episodes would presumably have us see the short-circuiting connections that Raoul is making between sexual prowess and political power.

Blessing, whose plays A Walk in the Woods, Thief River, and Cobb had a foothold on reality, takes a reckless plunge into the abstract world of tragi-comedy made famous by Ionesco. The issue that the playwright seems to be considering is the moral depravity and ethical disintegration of leaders who have been mistakenly led to believe themselves in authority but who are in actuality manipulated as pawns by a more insidious and powerful outside authority. As that perspective is clear enough, what is unclear is the cloudy manner and choppy style that Blessing uses to dramatize his theme.

Despite the manic motor-mouthed performing by four fine actors and the zany direction by John Pietrowski, Whores plays out like an extended and extremely outré skit. The play's skewed psychological path doesn’t appear to arc towards either a dramatic or comedic resolve.

Whores begins with an amusing, if tasteless, bit of titillation as Raoul is being scolded by Carmencita (Corinne Edgerly), a dominatrix-type director, who is losing patience with him and his amateurish sexual performance with a nun during the making of a porno film. This is followed by a scene in which the unnerved and confounded Raoul dances with a French woman who talks about being raped and loving it. Subsequently he is reminded of his murders and tortures by his wife (also played by Edgerly) who says, "Thank God, this is America and you can’t be tried as a criminal."

Three women who go by the names of Josette (Carol Todd), Angelique (Lily Mercer) and Miou-Miou (Lea Eckert) appear as the murdered nuns who relive the day of their deaths: as three French whores, who sit with plucked chickens on their laps listening to a 1980 radio broadcast given by Archbishop Romero of El Salvador and as three lawyers who read a deposition and respond to Raoul’s claims that he is being threatened by both the left and right. Two of the women also appear as Raoul’s petulant children. Somewhere in this duck soup of a play is the insinuation that Raoul has already starred in a movie-of-the-week -- Raoul de Raoul, Savior of Central America. Amid recounting mass murders and cover-ups, he dances a tango with Angelique who suggests to him that, "You can’t dance on someone’s grave unless you can dance."

What passes for humor lands mostly with a thud, particularly Edgerly’s appearance as Mary, Mother of God, and Raoul’s fantasy of himself as a masturbating and joke-less standup comic. But his serio-satiric speech in full military getup condemning the imposed American infrastructure, the FBI, the CIA and their denial of complicity in his failed and corrupt regime, packs a punch.

It is certainly fascinating to consider, as Blessing does, the circumstances that surround a foreign leader suspected of atrocities who finds asylum in America. However, the play, that was apparently inspired by the actual murder of three American nuns and a Catholic lay worker in El Salvador, seems unnecessarily fragmented and circuitous and seriously lost in tasteless charades and obscenities. Given Blessing’s homage to Ionesco, I missed the presence of a single character who represented an aspect of sanity or reality, as we get in the absurdist comedies of Italian playwright Dario Fo.

A two-act version of Whores had its premiere in 2003 at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, WV. This new one-act version is a co-production of New Jersey Repertory Company and Playwrights Theater of New Jersey (where it will play 2/03/05 to 2/20/05.

By Lee Blessing
Directed by John Pietrowski
Cast: Lea Eckert, Carol Todd, Lily Mercer, Corinne Edgerly, Jonathan Cantor
Scenic Design: Jo Winiarski
Lighting Design: Jill Nable
Costume Design: Patricia E. Doherty
Sound Design: Merek Royce Press
Properties: Jessica Parks
Technical Director: Radny Harwig
Choreographer: Christopher Daniels
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission
New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, N.J. 07740. 732/229-3166 or
From 10/09/04 to 11/14/04
Thursday, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM
Tickets are $30 with discounts available for students, seniors, groups, and through subscriptions. Dinner/theater packages are available at several neighborhood restaurants.
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on 10/09 opening night performance.
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