David Hare’s brilliant, riveting piece of intellectual drama rips the mask off the affable face of political correctness and exposes the yawning chasm of lies that separates Western society from the Third World.
At a UNESCO conference on world poverty in Bombay, famous expatriate Indian novelist Victor Mehta (Phillip Baker Hall) arrives to address the meeting. He is met with a maelstrom of criticism from Third World delegates and their left-wing allies, who object to the “lies” in Mehta’s fictional portrayal of poverty-stricken societies.
Mehta’s chief adversary is an idealistic young British journalist, Stephen Andrews (Christopher Paul Hart). He angrily derides Mehta’s political opinions and also bitterly resents Mehta’s magnetic power over pretty Peggy Whitton (Andra Millian), a conference organizer.
With the political stakes established and the sexual triangle set, Hare unleashes some of the finest theatrical writing of this generation. Excoriating the hypocrisy of the West, novelist Mehta denounces the endless expeditions of “hippies, left-wing zealots and animal conservationists” to Third World countries. He calls the United Nations a “palace of lies” and denounces everything from feminism to environmentalism as cruel weapons against poor societies.
While journalist Andrews lashes back at Mehta, accusing him of living in splendid artistic isolation, Andrews’ arguments never gather the shocking force of Mehta’s, and his left-wing “ragbag of opinions” sounds hollow next to Mehta’s stinging insights.
The cast is extraordinary in finding the emotional depth to this poignant moral debate. Hall is outstanding as Mehta, capturing the character’s pain and bitterness, as well as his secret, uncompromising idealism. Even more important, Hall plummets to the most profound depth of Mehta as the ultimate human tragedy–the universal man without a country.
Hart’s Andrews provides a terrific counterpoint to Mehta and matches Hall’s performance with great subtlety and scope. In his Los Angeles stage debut, Hart shows that he is an actor of enormous promise.
Other cast members are also outstanding, including a pivotal performance by Millian as the woman who is arbitrating not only between two men but between two world views. Lynne Moody sparkles as the CBS newswoman with yet another assignment to provide 30 seconds on world poverty to the evening news. Tucker Smallwood and Michael Holmes are fine as convention delegates, as is Randy Lowell in a turn as the film director.
Director Allan Miller does an excellent job with the production, resisting the temptation to stray from the fundamental elements of text and performance. Set, lighting and costume by Paul William Hawker, Gary Floyd and Pauline Cronin, respectively, are appropriately simple and straightforward.
While playwright Hare does stumble slightly by introducing an unnecessary second level to the piece–a film within the play–it does not diminish the powerful scope of this play, which tackles themes of universal, contemporary importance.