Review: ‘A Fair Country’

Oddly, though, "A Fair Country" is not a career-making play. Its parts are greater than the whole, which in the end seems to be a work the playwright has struggled with through several incarnations over many years and still not got right -- which in fact it is. And while Baitz has tackled such issues as the ethical imperatives of publishing ("The Substance of Fire"), corporate exploitation of the Third World ("Three Hotels") and the insidious corruption that poverty can inspire ("The End of the Day") deftly and with fresh insight, the conclusions reached in "A Fair Country"-- apartheid is bad, American diplomacy is inevitably corrupt -- seem atypically simplistic and somewhat old-hat.

Oddly, though, “A Fair Country” is not a career-making play. Its parts are greater than the whole, which in the end seems to be a work the playwright has struggled with through several incarnations over many years and still not got right — which in fact it is. And while Baitz has tackled such issues as the ethical imperatives of publishing (“The Substance of Fire”), corporate exploitation of the Third World (“Three Hotels”) and the insidious corruption that poverty can inspire (“The End of the Day”) deftly and with fresh insight, the conclusions reached in “A Fair Country”– apartheid is bad, American diplomacy is inevitably corrupt — seem atypically simplistic and somewhat old-hat.

Luckinbill plays Harry Burgess, a diplomat stalled at mid-career and desperate to exchange his job in South Africa for a cushy European post. In Durban, he pushes a liberal arts agenda, importing, for example, a production of “Idiot’s Delight” performed by a troupe of ex-convicts from San Francisco.

Ivey is his wife, Patrice, a volatile mix of pent-up rage and frustration, having given up her own artsy career only to end up in this limbo that is intellectually boring but a political powder keg.

They have two sons; the elder, Alec (Dan Futterman), is an activist and journalist, and the younger, Gil (McGrath), is a sensitive teenager not so well-defined except insofar as he is his mother’s protector and the author’s obvious stand-in.

The opening scene is set in an archaeological dig in Mexico, in 1987, where Patrice has tracked down Gil after many years of self-imposed exile; both his father and his brother are long dead.

The story then shifts back to Durban nine years earlier and the sequence of events that will rip this family apart, leaving it forever altered. Events hinge on Harry’s acceptance of a job with the Voice of America that will send the family to the Hague. But there’s a catch that involves the CIA, and in examining the ways in which political betrayals invariably have personal consequences, “A Fair Country” recalls both Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and Athol Fugard’s “A Lesson From Aloes.”

Designer Tony Walton has worked a particular kind of magic on the small Mitzi Newhouse stage, as five different and fully realized locales are assembled and replaced with uncommon ease. But even more spectacular is the work of director Daniel Sullivan with this ensemble: It’s seamless.

Luckinbill has the lumpish grace of a man forced by his own mediocrity to compromise his soul. Ivey has her first great role in years as the explosively funny Patrice. And after years as New York’s funniest neurotic teenager, McGrath finally has a part that allows him to grow up.

Coming of age is what “A Fair Country” is all about. This play is clearly close to Baitz’s heart; it has about it the feel of an attempt at settling scores. It’s about the terrible ways in which families can stifle and ultimately blot out optimism, and to that extent it’s mindful of another Lincoln Center Theater play, John Guare’s “Four Baboons Adoring the Sun.” Like that play, “A Fair Country” is ambitious and moving; that it’s also unfinished is almost irrelevant.

A Fair Country

Production

A Fair Country (Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, New York City; 291 seats; $ 37.50) A Lincoln Center Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Crew

Sets, Tony Walton; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, James F. Ingalls; music, Robert Waldman; sound, Scott Lehrer; stage manager, Roy Harris; casting, Daniel Swee; production manager, Jeff Hamlin. Artistic director, Andre Bishop; executive producer, Bernard Gersten. Opened, reviewed Feb. 19, 1996. Running time: 2 hours.

With

Cast: Matt McGrath (Gil Burgess) , Judith Ivey (Patrice Burgess), Teagle Bougere (Hilton), Laurence Luckinbill (Harry Burgess), Jack Davidson (Ellsworth Hodges), Maduka Steady (Victor), Dan Futterman (Alec Burgess), Richard Clarke (Gerrit Van Eden), Katie Finneran (Carly Fletcher). Jon Robin Baitz writes wonderful parts for actors -- roles they can really sink their teeth into. This is as much because his plays have significant moral concerns as because he's an exceptionally gifted writer with an amazing ear for the way all kinds of people actually speak. "A Fair Country" is no exception: Every role in this blistering account of a family ruined by betrayal is fully realized and passionately drawn, and so every one of the nine actors in it is giving a career-making performance, chief among them Judith Ivey , Laurence Luckinbill and Matt McGrath.
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