When We Go Upon the Sea
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 17, 2010
Lee Blessing's new play When We Go Upon the Sea has a provocative premise—former president George W. Bush is on trial in The Hague for war crimes—that it utterly fails to deliver on. It seems extremely unlikely that Bush will ever be prosecuted for anything at this point, but wouldn't it be interesting to consider seriously whether he ought to be? That's what I was hoping might occur in this play; but alas, Blessing has little if anything to offer on that political topic and instead, in a sort of postmodern bait-and-switch, uses his stage time to muse on how we treat celebrities—even notorious ones—in this cockeyed contemporary world of ours.
Indeed, Bush is merely the catalyst—and straight man, if you like—for an off-kilter dark comedy about Piet, a startlingly accommodating hotel employee (sort of a personal-assistant-for-a-day and dedicated concierge rolled into one enigmatic package), and Anna-Lisa, an exceedingly high-class/high-priced call girl (call her what you want: she's a prostitute, nonetheless). Bush is staying in this very exclusive Dutch hotel on the eve of his trial, inexplicably without his wife or any Secret Service protection (I had trouble swallowing that, one of many unconvincing aspects of Blessing's storytelling). He's edgy, unsurprisingly; Piet seems to be assigned to spend the night with his A-list guest, and winds up both listening to George's meandering but unilluminating conversation and, as the evening progresses, procuring a host of unhealthy and/or illegal goodies for his charge, starting with unlimited bourbon and culminating in coke and the beautiful Anna-Lisa.
At times, Piet and Anna-Lisa appear to be playing mind games with their American guest, but to what end is never revealed. (This is not a No Exit kind of play where these progressive and amoral figures have been set up to taunt and torment Mr. Bush for eternity; it would perhaps have been more interesting if it were.) Instead, the fun, such as it is, comes from watching George W. Bush get blitzed, snort cocaine, and get felt up (whilst clad only in his bathrobe) by a gorgeous hooker. Serious remarks are uttered from time to time, on a variety of subjects, but they don't amount to anything. Certainly the core idea—the one that made me interested in seeing When We Go Upon the Sea in the first place, namely, is Bush a war criminal—gets very short shrift indeed.
Paul Meshejian directs the play with a fairly heavy hand on a truly exquisite, lush hotel room set designed by Meghan Jones. Peter Schmitz steals the show throughout as the sly and deliberate Piet, a man of many surprises (if not a good deal of verisimilitude: would a hotel employee do drugs with a client in the client's room?). Kim Carson works hard to make Anna-Lisa more than the objectified knockout that she is called upon by the script to be. And Conan McCarty has little to do as George save suggest the iconic figure we know so well through a bit of body language and a hint of a Texas accent.
I wish that, if Blessing had wanted to write a play about the star treatment, he had chosen a fictional star to be in it. This play diminishes our former president in a way that's entirely unnecessary without casting any light on his achievements, positive or negative. And I wish that producers and publicists would stop promising substance—the press release for this show calls it "an introspective look at the mind and heart of a man trying to reconcile his personal beliefs, his presidential decisions, and his tarnished public image," which it assuredly is not—that won't be delivered.