“Two Rooms” is in many ways a companion piece to playwright Lee Blessing’s one enormous commercial success, “A Walk in the Woods,” which imagined the conversations of the two principal arms negotiators from the U.S. and the USSR as they took casual strolls a ways from the pressure pot of the more formal talks. “Two Rooms” is similarly about the conflation of the personal and the political; it is also similarly dated. Lacking the urgency that ripped-from-the-headlines dramas need, the production at the Sanford Meisner Center renders superficial Blessing’s workmanlike play.
Michael Wells (Christopher Warren) has been taken hostage by a group of young Shiites in Beirut — we never see his captors — and is moved from one bare room to another, handcuffed and forced to keep on a blindfold under threat of being beaten. With no sense of time, Michael passes his days composing imaginary letters to his wife, Lainie.
Back home in America, Lainie (Amy Henry) pines for her husband, who has been gone for well over a year. She has emptied out Michael’s office and “cleansed” it, in part perhaps to mimic Michael’s conditions but more directly to eliminate any objects that might distract from the absence that now defines her life.
She brings her visitors into this room, where the blinds are rarely open, to commune with her pain. Journalist Walker Harris (Daniel Hutchison) tries to convince Lainie to grant him a revealing interview that will put pressure on the government to work harder for Michael’s release; State Department functionary Ellen (Wylie Small), alarmed at the effect such an interview could have, attempts to dissuade Lainie from such public pronouncements, and unconvincingly preaches about the need for “advised hope.”
This choice confronting Lainie — whether to stay quiet and perhaps miss an opportunity to help Michael or become a public, political symbol in an arena where everybody will be manipulating her for their own purposes — provides the primary drama of the first act.
Director Sarah Knight chooses a reserved rather than melodramatic approach to the play, and moments of quiet power occasionally shine through. The staging between the scenes can be moving: Michael, for example, might be standing in a particular spot as a scene ends, and Lainie appears in exactly the same spot following a blackout.
Keith Endo’s lighting design helps define the emotional terrain, and the connection between Michael and Lainie is thoroughly convincing. But, while this love grounds the play, it is not where the action is. Lainie, desperate for human connection, reaches out to Walker and Ellen, but Knight’s direction somehow skates along the surface of these central relationships without giving them dramatic shape.
As Lainie, Henry mopes about the empty room so totally depressed that it feels as if she should be in a mental institution. Blessing has written a strong character and placed her in a setting that reflects her inner turmoil. Henry plays this inner turmoil with a vengeance, but in the process transforms Lainie’s intelligence and confusion into an odd form of self-pity. She’s not so much a player in a nuanced chess game as a brick wall that’s being pummeled from all sides.
Of the supporting players, Warren comes off best.