nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
March 14, 2012
Another Life sometimes feels like it’s trying to be all things to all people, without really succeeding at any: both a pitch-dark political satire about how absolute power corrupts absolutely, and a serious drama about grappling with the political realities of post-9/11 America; both a highly stylized character study—at times, almost a verse play—of a powerful and vicious man, and a searing, realistic investigation into torture and corruption. And while playwright Karen Malpede is ostensibly grappling with issues that should pack a real emotional punch—not just torture but grief, post-traumatic stress, sex trafficking, kidnapping, displacement from one’s culture, a family crumbling from the inside—there’s again a strange combination of an overabundance of content with a dearth of genuine engagement.
On a purely mechanical level, the script has some serious problems: The storytelling and character-building feel repetitive, especially in the second half. The impact of the scenes in Afghan and Iraqi prisons—scenes that should be devastating, for the piece to work as a serious piece of political drama—is drastically undercut by the decision to narrate them as third-person exposition, in one case a telephone call by a witness outside an interrogation room to his boss in the United States. The character development, too, is problematic: some are monstrous, some are saintly; all behave in ways that seem inconsistent and often unmotivated. But the tonal confusion also doesn’t help the play to feel more integrated.
The most monstrous of the characters is Handel, who’s risen from humble beginnings (as we learn in the monologue that opens the play, his father was a watchmaker and his mother a seamstress) to run Deepwater, a major American conglomerate that seems to have its fingers in many pies, among them the defense industry. His wife, Tess, is an aspiring photographer and sculptor who’s completely controlled by and dependent on Handel’s money—but she’s also a former prostitute from Chechnya who Handel, according to Tess, anyway, acquired from his money launderer. Handel’s daughter, Lucia (adopted from China by Handel and his first wife, long deceased), with whom Handel has a disturbingly sexualized relationship, is a medical resident, pregnant and engaged to Geoff, a union organizer who is trying, on September 11, 2001, when the play begins, to organize the restaurant workers at Windows on the World.
After Lucia witnesses the collapse of the Twin Towers, she flees barefoot and collapses, then is found and brought home by Abdul, an Arab cab driver and illegal immigrant whom Handel then imprisons in his luxury apartment for several years, for reasons that never became clear to me. Lucia miscarries and has an almost complete breakdown, leaving her hospital job after she becomes unable to bear the sight of blood.
Handel then makes what are essentially a series of moves to take over the world—he gives Alan Greenspan the ideas that will later lead to the world financial collapse; he advocates feverishly for the invasion of Iraq; he manipulates David Abbas, an ex-FBI agent, into running operations for him in Afghanistan and sends Lucia along as a medic in a move that’s somewhat strategic, but also has more than a whiff of selling his daughter to Abbas.
Once in Afghanistan, Lucia, working side by side with Abbas, witnesses prisoners being tortured and makes a complete break with her father, ultimately becoming a whistleblower about torture in American prisons (including Abu Ghraib). (Abbas, who started out being adamantly opposed to torture himself, makes several complete about-faces on this topic over the course of the play.)
Meanwhile, Handel has been keeping both Abdul and Tess trapped in his apartment, escalating from controlling his wife with money to making her a very literal prisoner, putting her in an orange jumpsuit a la Guantanamo prisoners, hooding her, blindfolding her, and shackling her in a box.
Unfortunately, though some of this can be shocking, very little feels plausible, nor does it ever stay in the same vein long enough to succeed as satire. One central problem, I think, is that there’s so little narrative or emotional consistency in any of the character arcs, let alone among the different subplots. When we’re first introduced to Handel, it’s via a long and fairly sympathetic (if linguistically a little over-ornate) monologue—but in every scene after that, he’s revealed as a caricature of a super-rich right-wing blowhard (I kept thinking of The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns, but with a nasty, predatory sexuality added in); George Bartenieff seems to be having a lot of fun chewing the scenery, but the character grows more over-the-top with every scene. David Abbas is introduced as a man of conscience, resisting Handel’s views on interrogation, then switches in Afghanistan to become a torturer, then seems to switch back. Lucia despises her father (and with good reason) but then is manipulated over a single dinner conversation with a stranger to go work for his company in Afghanistan. None of it adds up.
While I had a lot of problems with the script, I also don’t think that Malpede is serving her own writing well by directing it herself, in this instance. Where another set of eyes might have encouraged actors to make more counterintuitive choices, to add layers or ambiguity to the characters or their relationships, here it feels like a more declamative, less subtle style has been consciously imposed, which underscores some of the other problems in character development.
The piece deals with important issues, but, in the end, doesn’t really bring much to the discussion.