When 24-year-old Laura (Sara Hennessy), an idealistic airhead, takes a job in Tambia, a fictional Third World country, and exclaims, “Everything is, just, like, epic,” we know that her consciousness will be raised and within minutes she spells out her priorities: the elimination of “bribes, and AIDS, of course, and poverty and famine.” Richard Bean’s irreverent, cutting-edge comedy is entertaining and informative, following her from a neophyte acquiring wisdom through a copy of “The Idiot’s Guide to Islam” to mature evaluation of cultural and political differences that defy easy solutions.
Bean, who spent time as an occupational psychologist to NGOs (nongovernment organizations), knows this turf well. Central to the piece is his concentration on the problem of trying to impose our values, or allow Third World people their own culture and customs, even if those customs involve cannibalism, female genital mutilation and wife-beating. He also deals with the titular “God Botherers,” those who shove religion down the throats of resistant souls and interfere with their government, education and science.
His play presents a challenge for American ears. The dialogue and references are frequently so British that non-Brits will struggle to comprehend. This difficulty is compounded by a first act that makes cogent points, but tends to wander. The device of having Laura deliver her letters to a friend in the form of an audience-directed monologue is dramatically distracting.
Despite these faults, “Botherers” is the kind of play that creeps up and catches you by surprise. Without quite knowing when it happened, you’re swept into the story, and playwright Bean establishes nonstop suspense in the second half.
Bean lays the groundwork with honest, colorful protagonists. Hennessy is superb as the evolving Laura, and Robert Pescovitz reaches a plane beyond acting and becomes the bruised and cynical Keith. His portrayal of Keith suggests an attraction for Laura, and one of the tensely involving plot turns is whether he made love to her after she passed out from drinking.
Gradually, their clashing attitudes widen the gap, dramatized by Keith’s attitude, “We can’t get involved,” and Laura’s cry, “We are involved,” and the even-handedness of the writing enables us to see both sides of the argument.
Under the assured and intuitive direction of Damaso Rodriguez, two other key personalities command attention. Tony Tambi, a native of Cameroon, Africa, portrays Monday, hired as bodyguard to Laura, and a man who claims to follow three religions — Islam, Christianity and Poro. Tambi captures Monday’s contradictions, endorsing equal rights for women, then mounting a defense for wife-beating. He’s an opportunist in order to survive, yet with a big heart, and Tambi’s huge, high-wattage energy and smile give him added magnetism.
One sequence, when Monday is mercilessly whipped, is an acting triumph for Tambi, who tries to be brave in the face of agonizing pain and exemplifies his motto — “Defeat is never fatal unless you give up” — a quote from Richard Nixon.
Things turn potentially deadly when prostitute Ibrahima (Reena Dutt) confides to Laura that she has given birth to three girls and must deliver a son or her husband will kill her. From then on, there’s an expectation of tragedy, and when death comes, it’s not in the form we expect.
Although the production is small in scale, Shawn Lee’s set is outstanding, Christie Wright’s lighting provides a stunning orange sky and Doug Newell’s wild animal and motorcycle sounds, and automatic gunfire embellish the atmosphere. The camp, a small adobe house with picnic table and surrounded by fences, has a starkness that lets us feel the deprivation experienced by foreign aid workers who face life-threatening situations at every turn.