The Other Side
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 13, 2005
Ariel Dorfman's new play The Other Side is a rather bleak and unsparing look at the banal futility of war. It takes place in a remote cabin near the boundary between two countries that have been fighting each other for decades. Here, Atom Roma and Levana Julak—he a citizen of one country, she of the other—have lived for a very long time. They are waiting for their son Joseph to return home—he ran away some twenty years ago, after a particularly blistering disagreement with his father. While they wait, they work for the two warring nations as a kind of ghostly cleanup crew, finding and burying the bodies of young men and women who are killed by the constant bombings in the region, keeping meticulous records of each casualty (more than 5,700 so far) so that when the war finally comes to an end, parents and relatives of the dead will be able to find them and take them back to their homes. It is nothing more, Levana says, than she hopes some other mother would do for her son.
Shortly after the play begins, the unthinkable occurs: peace is declared. Now Atom and Levana must decide whether to stay out here in the wilderness or return to the city where he used to live; he wants to do the latter, but she is adamant that they remain where they are until Joseph comes back. Before they can resolve this impasse, however, they are interrupted by an intruder: a young Border Guard, who unceremoniously breaks through one of the walls of their house and begins to erect markers—antecedents to a wall—delineating the new boundary between the two countries. It runs right through the middle of their home; down the center of their bed, in fact. But the Guard is determined not to let anything keep him from his job: borders, when respected, he says, maintain the peace by separating the adversaries. And after what he's seen in the war, he's ready to do absolutely whatever he can to keep the peace.
Levana looks beyond the surface absurdity of the Guard's position and actions and sees: her son. Is this young man Joseph? Has he returned home on purpose, or does he—as he professes—not recognize Atom and Levana as his parents? The Other Side follows this development to a conclusion that feels to me entirely inevitable, one that echoes the sentiments of Arthur Miller ("But I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were, I guess they were.") and, more broadly, the words of John Donne: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
It's hard to take, this play; deliberately unhurried and spare and pensive. Dorfman shifts back and forth between a kind of magic reality and a very stark recognizable one, suspending his characters between a daily existence so macabre as to nearly be absurd (the parents waiting for victims to bury and document, the son erecting barbed wire across a bedspread) and an utterly futile hope (for in Dorfman's world—and, one fears, our own—lasting peace is as likely to turn up as Godot in a Beckett play).
Manhattan Theatre Club's production, which is the New York premiere (the play debuted in 2004 in Japan), is exquisite. The most impressive design element is Beowulf Boritt's superbly detailed set, which reveals itself as the play goes on and more and more light (courtesy of Russell H. Champa's expert design) is literally shed on its subjects, until at last an endless array of modest grave markers extends in all directions as far as we can see.
Equally invaluable are the three actors who perform this piece. One of them, Gene Farber, is a relative newcomer to the NYC stage, and he acquits himself beautifully in the complicated role of the Guard. The other two are pretty much legendary in my book, and here remind us why: John Cullum, as Atom, mines the many layers of a man who has long valued pragmatic survival over more expensive ideals with piercing acuity; and Rosemary Harris, radiant as ever, glows from within as the matriarch Levana. Her refusal to give up on the promise of her son's return home fuels just about every moment of this play with a fierce power that very precisely illuminates Dorfman's central ideas.
It all makes for a theatre experience that's as compelling and searing as it is harsh. Art is supposed, sometimes, to tear at our hearts and souls. The Other Side is a visceral, sad reminder that the atrocities of war that we take for granted when we see them on TV newscasts can still authentically touch us.