A writer goes to a strange city to visit an old friend connected to a hospital who initially seems to be missing but turns out to be mysteriously and suddenly dead. Or is he? Evidence from official quarters is unsettlingly unconvincing and, in a late twist, the friend turns out not only to be alive but morally and politically compromised. Disillusion swiftly turns into disaster. That’s the plot of the classic Graham Greene/Carol Reed movie thriller “The Third Man,” with Joseph Cotten doggedly on the trail of Orson Welles. It’s also the plot of JT Rogers’ “The Overwhelming.” The salient difference is location: Greene set his story in post-war Vienna, Rogers in pre-war Rwanda.
The address alone guarantees “The Overwhelming” urgency. In the immediate real-life sequel to this fictional story, 800,000 people were slaughtered in the genocide carried out by the governing Hutus over the “rebel” Tutsi. American playwright Rogers is intent upon disentangling the history of hatred in order that lessons can be learned. Unfortunately, he’s no Graham Greene.
In his U.K. debut, Rogers sets up the character of white, middle-aged American academic Jack Exley (Matthew Marsh), who comes to Kigali to write a book about the individual’s ability to effect political change. He’s going to collaborate with his ex-college roommate, Joseph (Jude Akuwudike), now a doctor in a struggling AIDS clinic. Faced with Joseph’s vanishing, Jack searches determinedly for answers from everyone from the police to government figures, U.S. embassy staff and U.N. observers.
Jack is told repeatedly that such “disappearances” are a fact of life in a divided country, in a ceasefire whose politics are smoldering — and that he would be well advised to leave it alone. But Jack persists.
Each scene, of course, allows Rogers to teach Jack and the audience more history, as each authority figure makes a speech about his own perspective on the incendiary state of things.
Another flaw is the fact that in order for events to proceed, Jack has to be overwhelmingly naive throughout. Such heroes exist in countless thrillers, but not when they’re supposedly a university lecturer in international relations who has “traveled all over the world.”
Jack’s over-extended ignorance puts auds in the worst possible relation to the material: frustratingly way ahead of the characters. Rogers attempts to explain Jack’s persistence via his need to finish his book to secure tenure. But in the face of mounting danger, it grows ever more unconvincing.
Jack has come with his unwilling 17-year-old son, Geoffrey (Andrew Garfield), because he “doesn’t want to raise another American who doesn’t question things.” In fact, Geoffrey is there to increase the jeopardy, which he duly does by having a profoundly unwise affair. Jack’s black American second wife, Linda (Tanya Moodie), meanwhile, is a journalist who wants “to ask hard questions” yet never investigates the motives of her new “friends” and informants.
Danny Sapani is smilingly benign as government official Mizinga but anyone who has watched even an episode of “Scooby Doo” can see he’s a dangerously deceitful manipulator.
The schematic nature of the writing is strongly counterbalanced by the production. Max Stafford-Clark, unquestionably the U.K.’s most important director of new writing for the last 30 years, is meticulous about welding actors to a script’s every thought, idea and hidden motive. In his productions, even the tiniest roles and moments register strongly and, despite serious flaws in the writing, that is the case here.
As Jack, Marsh has the biggest hill to climb and, against all odds, makes the character work via the sheer clarity of his intentions. Moodie brings a wholly convincing and amusing grandeur to Linda, the compassionate journalist who thinks she knows what’s she’s doing but discovers way too late that she’s in over her head.
Lucian Msamati effortless plays high status in well-contrasted roles of vicious officialdom, while Babou Ceesay finds unexpected glee building an increasingly dangerous friendship with Garfield’s well-observed son. Nick Fletcher delivers a flawlessly accented, physically differentiated double whammy as a French diplomat and a white South African aid worker.
The latter is the play’s most fascinating role. In only two brief scenes, Fletcher shows him as a man on a humanitarian mission who has seen everything yet is seriously compromised by the knowledge. A play from his perspective of simultaneous engagement and heavy-drinking escape might have had far more engaging contradictions.
Stafford-Clark and Rogers manage moments of undeniable power, as in the shocking final image: a sudden reveal of shelf after shelf of skulls contrasted with cabbages. But the metaphor is too late for a drama that has so earnestly tied itself to exposition.
The duplicitous Mizinga is in awe of the French novelist Balzac: “That one man could capture the sweep of an entire nation.” Rogers’s attempt to do the same for Rwanda is valiant. He casts vivid, necessary light on the buildup to a holocaust whose horrors have been woefully untouched by stage dramatists. It’s sad that his laudable intent is undermined by creaky dramaturgy.