nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
September 13, 2012
On New Year’s Eve, nine expatriate Serbians confront the gap between the hopes they had when they left Belgrade, and the lives they’re leading now. They’re all young, with their families for the most part still back in Serbia; they live all over the globe--a pair of brothers in Prague, two young married couples in Sydney, and a group of new acquaintances at a beach party in Los Angeles--and other than a shared sense of displacement, they’re connected only through a woman acquainted with most of them, Ana. Ana has stayed in Belgrade and become a successful TV presenter, married to a wealthy man and with a baby on the way. She’s living the life the others all, in some way, wanted for themselves, or hoped to acquire by leaving. And so Biljana Srbljanovic’s Belgade Trilogy is a play steeped in disappointment, about losing home and losing time (on a night focused on a chronological countdown, there’s a constant refrain of broken or missing watches) and seeing one’s life turn in a direction one never expected, but doesn’t know how to undo.
In Prague, the two brothers share a ratty apartment. The younger, Mica, left Belgrade to avoid the draft, and his older brother Kica is trying, in a somewhat half-hearted way, to look out for him. But after two years, the not-very-bright Mica is barely able to speak Czech, and the two are performing as cheesy salsa dancers in a bar, with barely enough money to pay their rent. For the holiday, Kica has brought home a girl for his little brother, but since the two only share a handful of sentences in a common language, the big date quickly turns into a big bust. All Mica wants to do is talk to his lost love, Ana, but they can’t even afford to pay the phone bill. (It was actually a little unclear to me whether Mica’s relationship with Ana was a real romance or more of a crush, but either way, he’s not getting her back.)
In Australia, the two married couples (Sanja and Milos, Kaca and Dule) bicker their New Year’s Eve away. They’ve come to Australia with high hopes--but now Sanja is stuck at home with a newborn and suffering badly from post-partum depression, while Milos works seven days a week. Kaca can’t find work that uses her journalism degree (unlike her former neighbor Ana, of whom she is viciously jealous), and Dule is drinking too much and working in an “antiques” store that sounds more like a junk shop. Both marriages are rocky, and Sanja and Kaca can’t stand each other, but they’re thrown together as the only Serbs any of them know in the far-off land; the minute one leaves the room, all pretense of politeness drops.
On a California beach, Mara and Yovan share a joint. Yovan, an actor, has overstayed his tourist visa to try to make it in Hollywood, but is working as a mover instead. Mara, a pianist currently waiting tables in New York, is in America through a twist of fate: her friend Ana entered her in the U.S. green card lottery, and when the universe hands you an American green card, you take it. And in the play’s climactic moments, Mara and Yovan encounter the jittery young Daca, a Serb of a different kind: American-born but in some ways more darkly steeped in the culture of their homeland than any of them.
The play works best as a series of character studies, all of which reflect back on the place they’ve left behind. I found the first section of the play, unfortunately, the least successful and engaging. Where the characters in the second and third sections (Sydney and Los Angeles) have dynamic tensions in their relationships, the brothers felt, even in a brief snapshot, stagnant. But also, the acting in this section was murky; it was hard to tell whether there was an ironic awareness of their own patterns or not, or even whether they were teasing or sincere.
The cast comprises a mixture of American and non-American (Bulgarian, Serbian, Macedonian) actors; the non-Americans, by and large, give the stronger performances. (This includes Iva Valkova as the Czech girl Kica brings home for his brother; Vanina Kondova as Sanja; Teodor Petelov as Dule; Luka Mijatovic as Yovan; and Alexander Ristov as Daca.) They seem to capture a genuine note of melancholy and alienation, and a particular kind of rueful wit, that not all the American actors have. (One exception is Kate Hoffman--Mara--who also translated the play.)
I was not entirely satisfied by the use of the elusive Ana as the main through-line connecting the characters (though this wraps up in a hauntingly beautiful way). This figure is used as a representation of their shared connections to home, but I’d sometimes prefer a stronger, more imagistic or specific sense of the place they’ve left, of what it meant to them and of how the places they’re in are different. There are tantalizing hints of the life before--Kaca’s frequent references to class differences between herself and her hosts back in Belgrade, for example. Or a moment when Sanja and Milos are rushing to change their baby’s diaper before their guests arrive, and he notes that in Belgrade, she’d have no Pampers; she’d be washing the diapers herself. I wished for more of these.
But the piece’s emotional tone remains affecting: the sense of alienation, of disappointed expectations, and the bitter irony that the one who stayed at home is the one who’s made it after all.