Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and everyone else involved with "Casablanca" may have made something of Joe Sutton's misguided new play "The Third Army." They made movie gold from dross on that classic picture, but director Greg Leaming and his cast have no such luck. In his new play, Sutton, whose 1995 "Voir Dire" was nominated for a Pulitzer, attempts to blend a post-Cold War political thriller set in the Czech Republic with a manufactured love story -- the net result is a muddle.

Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and everyone else involved with “Casablanca” may have made something of Joe Sutton’s misguided new play “The Third Army.” They made movie gold from dross on that classic picture, but director Greg Leaming and his cast have no such luck. In his new play, Sutton, whose 1995 “Voir Dire” was nominated for a Pulitzer, attempts to blend a post-Cold War political thriller set in the Czech Republic with a manufactured love story — the net result is a muddle.

Set five years after the Czech revolution, “Third Army” was inspired by the feeding frenzy for the right to renovate and reactivate the controversial Soviet-built nuclear power plant Temelin, near the Austrian border. According to the play, among the U.S. companies vying for the highly lucrative rights is Westinghouse. All’s fair in this business, including lying, back-stabbing, double-dealing and planted checks.

After a disembodied voice explains the basic situation, the opening scene gets the play off on a (second) wrong foot as a drunken American woman (or is she?), played by Meg Gibson, attempts to seduce a small-town Czech mayor (Neil Maffin). Her Czech-born husband (or is he?), played by Jan Triska, walks in on them.

The plot doesn’t so much thicken as congeal. As the femme fatale, Gibson swallows her lines so frequently that much of the time she can’t be understood. Czech accents get in the way of textual clarity elsewhere, and much of the time it’s well nigh impossible to follow what’s happening. Maffin seems merely embarrassed by his role of a naive idealist at the mercy of big business.

As Lubo Brodsky, the “husband” apparently working for Westinghouse, Triska isn’t the least bit embarrassed as he hurls himself into a wild and woolly performance that suggests Richard III on speed. Patrick Husted, as a victim of Brodsky’s deeply Machiavellian tendencies, and Carla Bianco, as an American journalist hired by Axelrod to expose Brodsky, tend more toward embarrassment. Leaming, Long Wharf’s director of artistic programming, also seems at sea; even his stage blocking is ungainly.

Christine Jones’ drab setting, which embraces 10 scenes and many locations, is barely illuminated by Dan Kotlowitz’s murky lighting. Fabian Obispo’s portentous music only accentuates the play’s dated Warner Bros. B-picture aura.

But the main problem is Sutton’s play, which lacks the wit, sophistication and sheer skill necessary to deal with such murky doings in the Czech Republic.

The Third Army

Long Wharf Theater Mainstage, New Haven, Conn.; 487 seats; $45 top

Production

A Long Wharf Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Joe Sutton. Directed by Greg Leaming.

Creative

Sets, Christine Jones; costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Dan Kotlowitz; music, Fabian Obispo; dialect coach, Gillian Lane-Plescia; production stage manager, Gretchen A. Knowlton. Artistic director, Doug Hughes. Opened Jan. 17, 2001. Reviewed Jan. 30. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Pavel Marek - Neil Maffin Diane Brodsky - Meg Gibson Lubo Brodsky - Jan Triska Barry Axelrod - Patrick Husted Alison Crawford - Carla Bianco
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