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Manhattan Theatre Club


a play by Lynn Nottage

11 March 2009 (City Center)

Beneath the cast listings for Ruined, her new play at MTC, Lynn Nottage thanks "the women from the Congo who bravely shared their stories." Parts of these stories have evidently been transferred bodily into the text of the play, but there's one detail that I'd have liked to hear more about. What does it mean for a woman to be ruined? Is it a psychological condition, an understandably hysterical response to any sexual advances? Or is it physiological, involving tissues damaged by overexposure to the genitals of marauding soldiers? I think it must have been the former, given the play's unexpected sunny ending, but what what with talk about doctors and surgery, I was never sure. For that reason, I feel somewhat unable to discuss Ruined as intelligently as I'd like to do.

In the collaborative world of the theatre, the main intersection is that of script and cast. Directors hover overhead, mediating signals, but what we're aware of in the audience is the gap between what the actors are called upon to do and what we see them doing. The gap may be very small, but the very "theatricality" of the theatre assures that it never disappears altogether. And I'm not sure that we want it to. When a great actress tackles a classic play, the gap is one measure of her distinction — of what makes her performance different from the others that we have seen. The curious thing about this gap is that we can tell which element — the script or the cast — is working harder to close it. When great plays are indifferently performed, we feel sorry for the playwright. When great actors flounder onstage with nothing intelligent to do, we feel sorry for the cast. Every once in a while, we're aware, as I was at Ruined, of a cast so gifted that our doubts about the script (and about the direction, should we think about it) lift and float away.

There is another intersection in the theatre, lying where ideas and emotions cross — where feelings struggle against forces, the personal against the general. In almost all plays, the characters at the focus of our sympathies are obliged to contend with conditions beyond their control. Ideally, these conditions remain somewhat offstage, understood equally well by characters and audience alike. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, the enmity between the houses of Montague and Capulet itself is not dramatized; no one attempts to understand it. We accept the fact that such things happen — and we're not particularly interested in the etiology of family feuds. The drama, of course, comes from the contrast between the beautifully-suited lovers and their poisonous connections. Modern playwrights, however, doubtless in response to the unprecedented ferocity of the century's disturbances, have shown a distinctly anti-classical interest in exploring the nature of social conditions — at the risk of producing starchy, didactic plays that swamp the uniquely personal and threaten to snuff our interest as well. Ruined flirts with this danger for most of its two acts. At three or four points, it threatens to collapse into a soup of clichιs about war and the bestiality of soldiers. And it does not tell us who its principal characters are until the last scene.

The play begins, soundly enough, with the arrival of Christian (Russell Jones), a regular visitor at Mama Nadi's bar (and brothel). Christian, also known as the Professor, is a lean, bespectacled man in a suit whose survival in the Ituri forest of eastern Congo seems somewhat miraculous. Drinking a cold Fanta, he reminds Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) that he hasn't touched spirits in four years. It is easy to confuse him with the sort of earnest and well-intentioned black American stock figure whose amiable plans are crushed or thwarted by the passions of less self-disciplined characters. Christian flirts with Mama Nadi and teases her about the supplies that he may or may not have brought her, but while Mr Jones makes Christian an appealing gent he cannot quite render him as a convincing entrepreneur. Christian is too good-hearted to be a man of business in the middle of a very literal jungle.

(This is as good a place as any to pause and commend the set design of Derek McLane — tables, chairs, a pool table, and a bar that doubles as a bedroom wall, all ranged in front of a disorienting thicket of tree trunks — the costumes of Paul Tazewell — especially eloquent for the ladies, as well as for Christian — and for Peter Kaczorowski's effective lighting. Dominic Kanza wrote the liltingly complex music for drums and guitar that serves as entertainment at Mama Nadi's; Ms Nottage herself wrote lyrics that, given the disconcerting proceedings, we might be forgiven for failing to register exactly. Insofar as Kate Whoriskey guided her players toward their luminous performances, she did a fantastic job.)

But we won't be thinking about the likelihood of Christian's viability until later in the play, when government forces and rebels bring their strife to Mama Nadi's neighborhood. We're amused, at the start, when Mama Nadi heartily rebuffs Christian's decorous advances. If Mama Nadi has a soft spot for the stronger sex, she keeps it very well hidden — she would much rather spar with a man than kiss him. The opening encounter is agreeable but familiar; we don't know how much anybody means to anyone else in this world.

The emotional atmosphere is suddenly complicated by Christian's sheepish announcement that he has brought Mama Nadi something besides Belgian chocolates and lipstick. To wit: two young women, one of whom limps, the other of whom is bruised. Mama Nadi is not welcoming; she doesn't need any extra mouths to feed, and the fact that the girl with the limp is the pretty one doesn't make the deal more attractive. We can hardly believe that Christian is in the business, or even has a sideline, of selling women into prostitution, and the horror of the women's situation, as they creep into Mama Nadi's bar, is brilliantly conveyed by the actresses playing Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Sophie (Condola Rashad). Their powerful entrance has the unfortunate effect of making Mama Nadi and Christian look like curtain-raising supporting players. Surely the play will center on the travails of one of these women — and, probably, of the two, it will be Sophie. Surely, we think, after Christian tells Mama Nadi that Sophie is "ruined," and then has to redouble his efforts to persuade her to take Sophie on board.

Ms Rashad plays Sophie as a traumatized angel — a sweet and gentle woman who has been betrayed by her own physical charms. This image is considerably tarnished by the revelation that, within no time, Sophie has settled into a routine of skimming her patroness's revenues, something that she is able to do because she is clever and literate. Again, the atmosphere complicates instead of clearing: is Mama Nadi such an evil woman that it is okay to steal from her? Still, it takes until well into the second act, and an aborted escape to Kisangani, for us to accept that Sophie is not the leading role in Ruined. By then, Salima has broken our hearts with her memories of playing with her baby, Beatrice; of being surprised, among her vines of ripe tomatoes on a beautiful day, by a party of soldiers; and of being utterly rejected by her husband and fellow villagers when the soldiers are through with her. It's a testament to Ms Bernstine's great gifts that she plausibly displays the Salima's dimness of intellect right alongside her ability to see straight to the heart of important things.

The strutting soldiers in their respective factions are Ms Nottage's big headache. That the rebels are no better than their opponents in the run-up to open conflict ought to have cautioned the playwright against expending too much candlepower in trying to illuminate them. Whether they're ranks on the lookout for a good time or steely commandos with a gift for intimidation, they're entirely familiar characters who have nothing to add to the dramatic tension of the show, beyond the not un-annoying visceral threat of onstage violence. They are, quite literally, the same kind of forces that make Shakespeare's young lovers star-crossed — more menacing offstage. They take up all the oxygen onstage throughout the latter half of the first act and the first half of the latter. During that time, Mama Nadi, her girls, and her civilian patrons are too busy walking on eggs to engage in genuinely dramatic confrontations. Mr Nottage is almost absent-minded, for instance, to kick Christian off the wagon — without serious consequences. Obliged to guzzle shots of whisky by a "friendly" commando, Christian is an unhappy man throughout the middle of the play, and he eventually storms off, "never to return" to Mama Nadi's. But his behavior makes us wonder if it's true that, before he gave up drinking, he was the lost man that he claims to have been.

Bright lights pop; then the theatre is plunged into darkness. The manifold sounds of gunfire blast from every corner. We have been here before, some of us too often for the excitement to be anything but irritating. With time left for only one or two more scenes (we almost pray), the prospects for the four characters whom Ms Nottage has succeeded in making us care about don't look good. Salima dies in the arms of the husband, now a soldier, who has betrayed her twice. We are reduced to wondering what sort of nasty finish we and the survivors are in for.

Instead, the war subsides, as wars do with the passage of time, and Mama Nadi, although short on customers, seems to be in one piece when Christian reappears — in a different suit. Christian's return builds into a moving love scene, one in which the aphrodisiac is not sexual magnetism but trust. As Mr Jones' Christian shines with trustworthiness, Ms Ekulona's Mama Nadi drinks it in. It is not disrespectful to say that the encounter has much of the power of watching a gifted man calm an anxious thoroughbred. A good man is hard to find, especially when, like Mama Nadi, you haven't been looking for one. No matter; Mr Jones's performance is so successful that there is nothing incongruous about his surprising emergence as the leading man.

Coming back to Ms Nottage's note of thanks, I have another question. Did any men of the Congo share their stories? Against the familiar backdrop of womanly outrage at the depredations wrought by armed but senseless young men, and in the teeth of unavoidable if unvoiced comparisons to Brecht's Mother Courage that ought to make Mama Nadi a far more repellent character than she is, Ms Nottage has given us a sweet and delightful love story, as "against the odds" as you please but all the more satisfying for that. As Christian finally gets to dance with the woman he loves, our happiness may prevent us, for the time being, from asking just why it was that Ruined took up so many issues when it had such lovers.

But only for the time being. Ruined would be a much stronger play if Lynn Nottage paid a little less attention to the men who make women's lives miserable, and rather more to the men who don't.

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