Say What?

Language isn't the only barrier in The Internationalist

Some U.S. citizens tend to be offended when they travel to another country and the natives don't speak their language. These clichéd "ugly Americans" are invariably and justifiably seen as pushy and arrogant.

But when the American business traveler in Convergence-Continuum's staging of The Internationalist encounters communication problems abroad, he's more the victim than the perpetrator. Trouble is, the audience is also left in the lurch by this non-communicative play.

Playwright Anne Washburn constructs a devilishly interesting premise, and then — like that annoying guy who remembers all the words to a joke except the punch line — she fails to stick the landing. As a result, some skillful acting by the Con-Con players is frittered away in a play that hobbles to a weak and half-baked conclusion.

A man named Lowell arrives in an unnamed country whose language, by the looks of signage at the airport, is not currently in anyone's phrase book. Once there, he is greeted by Sara, a worker at the firm for which he is consulting, whom he mistakes at first for a limo driver and then for a prostitute.

Awkward moments like those multiply when Lowell tries to chat up Sara at a bar, sharing a weird local cocktail that is abhorrent at first sip and then gets tastier and more seductive with each ensuing gulp. As Sara explains about this drink: "You must suffer first; it is a philosophic beverage."

If Washburn intended to make a philosophic play, she has gone about it in reverse order. The first act is palatable enough, but then everything becomes blander, more repetitive, and less interesting as time goes by.

Lowell eventually meets his peers at the company and is left scratching his head as they frequently speak in a language carefully constructed out of gibberish. At times, the locals deign to speak just enough English to tantalize both Lowell and the audience.

Alas, the second act is merely more of the same, beginning with an extended scene of office panic over a crisis that is never described — at least not in our language. Instead, not much happens and no answers are forthcoming.

This concept may appeal to those who find all corporate communication corrupt and laughable. But it's a laborious way to deliver that little nugget of jaded cynicism.

That said, some of the actors under Clyde Simon's direction have some delightful moments before everything goes downhill. As Lowell, Tom Kondilas is effectively befuddled by his situation, and as two of the workers at the intrigue-laden company, Ray Caspio and Laura Starnik each have stellar moments.

Saddled with a couple of mushy roles as company workers Paul and Simon, Robert Hawkes has little chance to save the proceedings. Paul's one extended scene with Lowell, which takes place towards the conclusion, is just a capsule elucidation of a theme — "You'd be like us if you could!" delivered by Lowell in defense of the rapacious U.S. of A. — that the playwright never bothers to integrate into the rest of her work.

Laurel Hoffman makes a lovely Sara, but doesn't find an interesting hook for a woman who becomes more irrelevant as the play progresses. And an overly stiff Geoffrey Hoffman, as the company's head honcho Nicol, never exudes the smooth executive vibe necessary to anchor his scenes.

If Washburn has something interesting to say about Americans abroad or communication or the disconnect we all feel in different cultures, it goes unsaid here. And that's a disappointment, given the play's promising start.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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