Don’t bother trying to classify “The Internationalist.” Launching the Vineyard’s 25th season, Anne Washburn’s play resembles everything from romantic comedy to political drama to mystery. But since those genres are reimagined from Washburn’s unique perspective, familiar stories and characters evolve into revelations about how loneliness spreads through the world.
At first, the play recalls Sofia Coppola’s film “Lost in Translation” as both follow Americans whose alienation from a foreign culture reveals their alienation from themselves. But while Coppola drops her Yanks in Japan, Washburn sends hers to an unnamed, imaginary European country. Businessman Lowell (Zak Orth) must work with colleagues whose language doesn’t really exist.
Orth’s castmates slide easily between English and the other tongue, and sometimes it takes a moment to realize they’ve moved from “How are you doing?” to “Emp tida ala hayat.” While this can be funny — particularly when one businessman butchers American slang — it’s never a goof. More than any of its multiple plotlines, the play’s central concern is the barrier of language.
Director Ken Rus Schmoll crafts overlapping stories –involving office romance, an employee stealing from the company and a bartender who mixes the perfect drink — yet gives them all the same quiet rhythm. This makes the entire show feel like a meditation, as does a cast that chooses tiny details over attention-grabbing gestures.
The dreamy tone tinges believable actions with the surreal. Similarly, Washburn’s English can float from conversational to poetic in a phrase. A flirtatious conversation between Lowell and office assistant Sara (Annie Parisse) transforms when she explains how she perceives middle America.
“In Kansas,” she says, “they continue the conversation at a cocktail party as sincerely as possible, even when they realize they got stuck with a bum, so that in Hollywood and New York they can just turn and walk away.”
Lines like that are a step past reality, and they encourage us to find a larger metaphor woven through the scenes.
Everyone is a foreigner — an internationalist traveling — because everyone has a private language no one else can know. From the American who wants to apologize for his country’s failings to the woman who can’t express her hidden love, the play mines both the need to communicate and the inability to be understood.
That notion shapes the structure, too, since the use of imaginary words guarantees a wall between thesps and audience. We may catch the gist of certain scenes, but we can never know what they’re truly about.
Andromache Chalfant’s set is also a strained conversation. Upstage, old-world arches give way to shadowy doors, but downstage, white walls and hard furniture suggest a modern corporate suite. They are shoved together, but these environments will never be in harmony.
Nor does “The Internationalist” knock down these barriers to communication. Instead, the final moment evokes a distance between people that may never close, since most don’t even realize it’s there. It’s a heavy sigh of an image, and it suits this sad, beautiful play.