American Values

While entertaining, 'The Unmentionables' fails to bring anything new to the issue of America's place in the world

If you polled the typical Woolly Mammoth audience you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t agree that: 1) American Christian missionaries who go to Africa thinking they are entitled to inject themselves and their message without respect for the country’s culture and history are morons; 2) American businessmen who go to Africa and set up unregulated factories that pollute the land and destroy the traditional economy are evil; and 3) Americans who go abroad, say, to Africa and can’t get beyond their sick-culture neuroticisms are pathetic.


Since these are the underlying edicts of Bruce Norris’ latest endeavor, The Unmentionables (starstarstar), he is preaching, if you will, to the choir. And even though he has succeeded in creating a fast-paced, ideologically accessible play with a certain compelling view-ability, the question remains: Has he in fact added anything to the PC bible? And if so, is he funny about it? The answer is pretty much a full-bodied no.

Norris, through an almost cute device, aims to drive every one of his (American) characters so far to the edge that their layers of self-justification and self-deceit finally fall away. But the end result and much of the process are deeply and unforgivably color-by-numbers. The do-gooder American girl realizes she hates lousy weather and poverty-stricken, smelly foreigners. The amoral American businessman reveals a childhood motive for his mercenary ways. His never-too-thin-or-too-rich wife drops the warp-speed, Bethesda-style hyper-yak long enough to decide she hates herself. And blah, blah, blah, on it goes.


Adding insult to injury, Norris presents all of his African characters as somehow virtuous, witty, victimized, or, when driven to things like torture, working off a kind of lesser-than-two-evils pragmatism at which we Westerners must sadly shake our heads. (But woe betide us if we judge!)

Ultimately, Norris’ Africans are all kept very much above the American-induced fray. It is a choice loaded with the kind of do-gooder condescension toward racial minorities that has been expressed so very well by the American sitcom and which presumably Norris heartily eschews. But if there is irony in there, the levels are imperceptible.

Clearly, with his one-room set crammed with characters, Norris is trying for a hothouse of instantly recognizable types. But where is the subtlety? We all know Americans are crass and idiotic (okay, slight generalization — usually crass and idiotic). We needed Norris to do far more than dramatize a concept that has been done to death.

So what has director Pam MacKinnon done for this exercise in PC-lite? Well, for one, she has so activated the cast that they move and speak like a keenly energized orchestra. The silences are well-carved, the crescendos of voices equally so. Almost all characters knows who they are meant to be, even if they cannot all reach the ideal. Though the Doctor, who is called to minister to the Americans in various ways, is written with boring obviousness as the play’s extremely self-satisfied conscience, John Livingstone Rolle plays him with a subtlety and humor that goes far in distinguishing the character from the modern stereotype.

THE UNMENTIONABLES
To Sept. 30
Woolly Mammoth
641 D St. NW
$35-$57
202-393-3939
www.woollymammoth.net

Naomi Jacobson as the businessman’s wife is tremendous at painting the neurotic Nancy, despite the fact that Jacobson is given nothing to emote with save a load of souped-up sitcom blather. She tries mightily, but what can you do when your character suddenly just stops talking towards the end of the play on the pretext of some kind of ”personal epitome”? Kofi Owusu as Etienne, our stock victim and savvy African youth, does an excellent job with what he had, but his role as sometime-narrator seems written for another, much wittier play. Though Marni Penning as Jane the ex-sitcom star turned missionary gives a lot of energy to her role, she never quite breaks free of her own tendency to appear as if she is acting for TV.

So Norris has created an entertainment, and yet has failed to bring anything new to the deeply complex and painful issues of America’s place in the world. He has come perilously close to compounding to the problem.

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