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The Other Side, at MTC's Stage I

Ariel Dorfman's The Other Side is a short, neat, and ultimately unsatisfying experiment in mid-century absurdism. I hope that Charles Isherwood will forgive my quoting his pert autopsy.

In "The Other Side," Mr. Dorfman has set out to denounce the cruelty of global feuds fired by nationalism and ethnic prejudice.

But he has expressed this unexceptionable sentiment in the form of a ponderous comedy-drama that could itself be accused of a human-rights violation, albeit a minor one: the wholesale waste of two first-rate actors.

Rosemary Harris is Broadway's grande dame. She is our Helen Hayes, our Lynn Fontanne. At a minimum!7 John Cullum, who debuted on Broadway in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever - Lord, I saw him in that! - is a consummate man of the theatre. One would have hoped that Mr Dorfman, whose Death and the Maiden a few years back identified him a playwright of conscience, would have given these fine actors a drama of searing political difficulty. Instead, we have a watered-down Ionesco. Set on a fictional frontier, The Other Side takes place in a cartoon-land of brutal nonsense. It might have been more appropriate to give his characters functional identities, "Man," "Woman," "Guard." In fact, "Guard" is the name of the third character. Mr Cullum and Ms Harris, however, go by more exotic nomenclature: Atom Roma and Levana Julak. Could "Atom Roma" be anything but Israeli? Could "Levana Julak" come from anywhere but the Warsaw Pact? And what about the warring countries on either side of the frontier, Costanza and Tomas? What sort of code is this? These places and characters are everyone and everywhere - which means that, theatrically, they're no one and nowhere.

Atom and Levana live in a badly-damaged house near the river that divides Costanza from Tomas. They have a special immunity from attack, because they're charged with burying the dead - civilian casualties - and keeping such records as will allow families to reclaim their lost ones when hostilities subside. Levana is determined to stay on, moreover, because she expects Joseph, the son who ran away from her and Atom at a tender age, to return to his birthplace, and she wants to be there for him. The abstraction of such living arrangements would make more sense in a piece for mimes, or a ballet, or some line of theatre not involving speech. Ms Harris and Mr Cullum are so eminent and so venerable that they probably didn't gnash their teeth at the threadbare aspect of their speeches, which are as notional as the soup that Levana stirs atop the tiny coal stove. At the opening, the couple argue about whether they ought to have rebuilt Joseph's room before installing a toilet; Atom, needless to say, is not holding his breath for Joseph's return. The very idea of adding a closet, much less a bedroom, to the shack on stage is improbability itself. You look at Levana's torn stockings: why does she wear them? How does she keep them clean? This couple lives in a landscape of such devastation that they ought to be draped in blankets. Instead, Atom actually wears a cardie.

The actors do their best to ham things up. Thank heaven for that. Slyly - I'm not sure that I ought to say this - the two pros play to the audience, jettisoning any illusion of their being alone in a remote cabin. No; they're great actors on the New York stage. That ought to be an insult, but given the thinness of Mr Dorfman's material, it's an absolute blessing. Why, I can hear Ms Harris herself saying just that, nodding her head pensively while brandishing her soup ladle at the audience and pretending not to smirk. "That's just what it is - an Absolute blessing."

Did I mention that Levana is a native of Costanza, while Atom hails from Tomas? Levana ran off, in fact, with Atom, against the wishes of her father and her brothers, who would now like to kill both of them. That's useful know when it turns out that the border between the two countries runs not in a river bed but right through the couple's home. This is where the Guard comes in.

Gamely played by Russian-born Gary Farber, the Guard is a composite of two stock characters, the grim enforcer of bureaucratic rules and the runaway child. It takes about ten seconds for the audience to begin to wonder how long it will take Levana to "recognize" the Guard as Joseph, and when she does, there is no surprise about it. (Another World might have a future as a thoughtful high school play for first-time audiences.) That's a problem: the whole interest of such melodramatic maneuvers is to take spectators by surprise. Of course, Joseph's return - if it is a return - is utterly ironic, in that it's clearly unintended. The Guard, diligent about doing his job - ordering Atom and Levana to return to their native countries, even if this means staying in opposite ends of the room (a situation that might be farcical if it were not Absurd) - does not have homecoming in mind, and if Levana and Atom turn out to be his parents, he hasn't changed his mind about leaving them behind.

The mechanism of the melodramatic discovery generates a complete shift in the polarity of a drama: the figure hitherto regarded as an enemy is shown, by means of a birthmark or somesuch, to be a long-lost relative. The change in relationship changes a character's mind about who he is and which side he's on. (Consider The Marriage of Figaro.) Here, the change in relationship - the shift from "Guard" to "Joseph" - does not have that effect, and the realistic inversion of a stock trope (the only realistic thing about the play) might have made for a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching straight drama about generations. (I'm thinking of 'Night, Mother.) Oh, what a different evening that would have been! Perhaps I ought to be grateful to Mr Dorfman for giving me, however inadvertently, an idea of the play that he ought to have written, one in which Rosemary Harris and John Cullum might have shown us everything they've got!

But I'm not grateful. Mr Dorfman made me sit through a lot of blather about war and good fences and armistice and "I'm only doing my job." There were funny moments; Kathleen and I will always laugh when we remember the preposterous, tin-pot bedecked lifeguard stand that the Guard wheels onto the scene, and from which he proposes to survey the border, or at least that part of it that crosses the bed that Levana and Atom find it useful to hide under. There is a fair amount of good satire in The Other Side. But the play itself is not a satire. It's a manifestation of absurdity. There may have been a time when bourgeois audiences needed such manifestations. Now we celebrate them - with The Far Side.

Beowulf Boritt gets top marks for his impressively dilapidated set - permanent damage was done to Stage I (except that nothing about the theatre is ever permanent). Russell H Champa (lighting design) and Scott Killian (sound design) do a fine job of bringing us closer to artillery than we should like to be, and I suppose that Production Stage Manager James Fitzsimmons had a hand in this as well. Linda Cho's costumes are nondescript, which would be "realistic" if the play itself were, too. Blanka Zizka's direction keeps the action clear. I don't know what could have been done with this schematic drama. (January 2006)

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