The Sunshine Play
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
August 17, 2007
The concepts "Romanian theatre" and "romantic comedy" don't juxtapose comfortably—which is what makes Peca Stefan's The Sunshine Play work. As a western romantic comedy, it's pretty conventional—but as a piece of Eastern European theatre (performed in English by a Romanian cast), it's charming and surprising in its focus on its characters and their personal travails rather than any political context. The Sunshine Play is about disaffected people yearning for romance, honesty, success—just like any romantic comedy—and it shows us a perspective on Eastern Europe that we rarely get to see. It also showcases all three actors and their director doing rich, emotionally resonant work—and in a non-native language.
On a rooftop in Bucharest, Trifon, a feckless Bulgarian guy, proposes to Iza, an aspiring actress (her greatest success—unpaid—has come as the voice of the Bucharest subway) who instead works for a cell phone company. He's set the perfect romantic scene—and he's a little drunk. So when Iza's reaction is awkward surprise rather than enthusiastic acceptance, the fight that ensues quickly turns into an ugly breakup. Trifon storms off to get drunk; Iza remains on the roof, nursing her sorrows.
She's interrupted by Dan, who's looking for a quiet place to smoke a joint and contemplate his own dilemma: he's come back to his native Romania from Colombia to introduce his Colombian wife to his family. There's just one problem: his marriage has already fallen apart.
Dan wants solitude, but Iza's misery wants company; by the time she takes a bathroom break, she's told him just about all there is to know about her, and he's told her the first of several versions of the demise of his marriage. And of course, when she leaves for the bathroom, Trifon—now staggeringly drunk—returns to the roof to make up, but finds instead a stranger—who, in the manner of the staggeringly drunk, Trifon immediately befriends.
The characterizations can seem over the top, but all three actors, under Margineanu's astute direction, find ways to ground their roles. Cosmin Selesi, as Trifon, gives the best comic turn, as a guy in way over his head in his relationship; he's a bit of a buffoon, but lovable and earnest. Iza is a drama queen—glamorous, and a little too full of her own emotions—but Isabela Neamtu's dryness deflates Iza's pretensions and makes her lovable. And Daniel Popa as Dan is so charmingly restless, so uncomfortable in his skin and the mess he's made of his life, that he remains endearing even as we learn this character is an inveterate liar.
Of course Trifon, Iza, and Dan end up on the roof together, and—since it's a romantic comedy—two of them end up romantically together as well, though with a wry ambivalence that may be the most predictably "Eastern European" thing about the play.
Remember, the entire play takes place on the roof—represented by a raked platform about six feet by six feet. So the final scene, in addition to being the comic payoff, is also a tribute to director Margineanu's inventiveness; she's still finding ways to keep the relationships physically engaging and fresh, even adding a sense of danger in the last moments.
The fact that Dan doesn't realize that Trifon and Iza are two sides of the same break-up until the last scene is a weakness in the story—but one in keeping with the conventional logic of farce. And while The Sunshine Play is in many ways a very conventional play to an American audience, the kinds of emotional, career, and life choices being made throughout the play are all brand new to its characters—and to an entire Romanian generation. That double vision, captured with clarity, humor, and more than a little bewilderment by Stefan, makes the familiar into something new.