nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
December 6, 2006
The Flea Theatre's production of Mac Wellman's didactic new play, Two September, is structured in such a way, from the performances through all the production elements, that watching it felt almost like looking at a two-dimensional image of a particular period in time. The play as a history lesson is valuable, looking at a little known aspect of American involvement in Vietnam. But dramatically, it is static and not particularly involving.
The play begins with Josephine Herbst (Jayne Haynes), who tells us we probably never heard of her (I hadn't), and then explains her own days working with the U.S. government. She sets the scene in China and Vietnam in 1945, where the Japanese, although en route to being defeated by the Allies, still maintain control. She introduces us, briefly, to two Americans from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) who are prepared to meet Ho Chi Minh (Arthur Acuna), whose rebel group in Vietnam is giving the Americans information.
We first meet Ho Chi Minh through the eyes of the two OSS officers (Drew Hildebrand as #1 and Christian Baskous as #2), who are working in China against Japanese interests. After Ho fills out a detailed questionnaire, they agree to provide him with an armed escort, and he agrees to construct an airstrip that will enable American observers to land in Vietnam.
This is the beginning of a relationship that will last several years, as the Americans (in particular #2, who seems to be the less experienced of the pair) will offer moral support to Ho, who will continually press for reassurance that the Americans will assist the Viet Minh in creating a Vietnamese free state, and not permit the Japanese to retain control or the French to retake their former colony. As #2 repeatedly states, Roosevelt's policy supports independence for the Vietnamese, and since his death the Truman administration has not changed that policy. The Free French leader De Gaulle has also apparently claimed that France has no interest in reclaiming its former colony. As Ho Chi Minh makes his moves, and the country comes closer to independence, Truman says nothing, but #1 and #2 are still unable to offer concrete support.
This story is periodically interrupted by monologues from Herbst which describe her own odyssey with the U.S. government, where she was removed from her position and blacklisted for being a "premature anti-fascist," or in other words, a person who supported the Soviet Union before Hitler's assault made it fashionable to do so. She also describes her own authorial career in sections packed with minutiae that sound more like an assigned reading list than anything dramatic. She reads a section from a biography she has written about an 18th century botanist.
Director Loy Arcenas has staged Wellman's script simply, which seems to be the watchword for the production. The actors speak clearly, move slowly, and, although not terribly dynamic, always make sure the details in this complex story are clear. Ben Stanton's lighting and Arcenas's set are simple and effective, and do a nice job of evoking the environment of the American military in an Asian country.
The ultimate point of the play, I believe, is that the entire morass that United States found itself trapped in in Vietnam could have been avoided if Roosevelt's original policy of providing self-government for a liberated Vietnam had been followed. This would have led to a national unity government, rather than a split country that the United States had to choose sides in. As Ho Chi Minh says, "I cannot understand how the United States, a champion of anticolonialism, can step aside and permit England and even China to assist France in its aim of reimposing colonial rule on Viet Nam." While this may be a good point, and valuable history, the play does not actually answer the question.