nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 13, 2006
I've been reading a book called Off the Map, which is all about famous journeys of exploration, from Marco Polo's trip to China to Shackleton's visit to Antarctica; one of the recurring themes of the early chapters is the conqueror's propensity for enslaving the conquered. Over and over again, from Genghis Khan to Pissarro in Peru to the British in the South Pacific, human beings have viewed other human beings who differ from them in terms of race, language, or religious practice as being inherently inferior: chattel rather than people, ripe not just for colonization but for total subjugation and appropriation.
This thought hit me rather hard after seeing Chad Beckim's smashing new drama 'nami, and not just because the play's overt and rather sensational subject is the post-tsunami trade in Indonesian orphans, who are sold to rich Westerners or Japanese as sex slaves. No, though that heinous notion fuels Beckim's plot here, what's simmering underneath is just as incendiary and just as worthy of our exploration. Why do we sometimes confuse unilateral control for unconditional love? Why do husbands think they can "own" their wives? Why is the fundamental humanity of an "other" something we can discount and ignore so easily?
'nami takes place in an inner-city apartment building, one that's decrepit and cheap. Here we meet two couples who are next-door neighbors, thought they're barely aware of each others' existences. Harry and Lil are a white couple, married 15 years; he's scraping by as a taxi driver, while she is still recovering from a recent mental breakdown that had seen her institutionalized for some period of time—one (though perhaps not the only) problem Lil suffers from is significant depression over not being able to bear children (and indeed in the play's stunning first scene, we hear Lil and Harry having sex offstage, after which Lil emerges to announce that she is now pregnant. Harry simply says, sadly, "No, you're not.").
Keesha and Richie are people of color; Keesha's black and Richie is Hispanic. She works at McDonald's and is striving toward a life of lower-middle-class stability that her socioeconomic status makes elusive at best. He's a petty hood in the employ of the building's landlord, a hulking monster named Donovan who was once Keesha's pimp and now forgives their delinquent rent by making them run "errands" for him. The current errand is to temporarily care for a little girl from Indonesia. Richie tells Keesha that the child is waiting to be picked up by a rich family that is adopting her. But in fact, she's about to be sold as a sex slave. When Lil overhears Donovan and Richie discussing the plan through the apartment's thin walls, she goes ballistic trying to figure out how to save the child. Harry, exhausted from coping with her mental instability day-in/day-out, doesn't believe her, thinking she's delusional. What are you supposed to do when your husband knows you're crazy and won't believe you when you're telling the truth?
'nami follows that hook to a grand, dramatic conclusion in a dynamite second act that's loaded with suspense, violence, and terror. But this is no cheap horror story; Beckim has serious intentions as he investigates the dynamics of each of his married couples' relationships, along with their tenuous security vis-a-vis the utterly amoral Donovan. It's gripping, edge-of-the-seat drama that gets under the skin and keeps you talking and thinking for hours after the show has ended.
Beckim's writing is solid throughout, weaving dark humor and genuine earnest romance among the threads of his main thriller plot. The dialogue and characters feel 100% authentic, which makes us wonder a bit where and how this young playwright learned so much about life's harshest realities; and if the ending isn't entirely satisfying, the total experience of 'nami is indie theatre at its very best.
Of course, Beckim isn't working alone on this project. His director, the enormously skillful John Gould Rubin, has staged the play spectacularly well, with not a moment wasted and not a single beat missed. He trusts his actors and his audience to make the play vivid, with significant segments taking place out of sight, so that our imaginations kick in where verisimilitude would be difficult; for example romantic scenes are played offstage, and the climactic fight sequences (choreographed brilliantly by Qui Nguyen) are strategically arranged so that the gory, bloody parts are left for us in to fill in in our heads. Rubin's designers—Heather Wolensky (set), Lex Liang (costumes), Jason Jeunnette (lighting), and Zach Williamson (sound)—all contribute spare, naturalistic designs that contribute mightily to the taut, intense atmosphere of the piece.
The five-person cast is excellent. First among equals is Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Keesha, who conveys the desperation, anomie, and courage of this conflicted young woman with astonishing felicity. Eva Kaminsky is similarly effective as the troubled Lil. The three men in the company—Michael Gladis as Donovan, Alfredo Narciso as Richie, and Marc Rosenthal as Harry—all create rich, potent characters as well.
'nami is the most exciting new play I've seen so far in this young season, and it's so accomplished and compelling that it will likely prove to be one of the very finest new works of the year. This is an unsettling piece about deeply disturbing ideas—specifically, the notion that one of us can literally own, buy, or sell another of us. Somehow that impulse seems to come naturally to an awful lot of people. 'nami tries to understand how, and what on earth, if anything, we might be able to do about it.