The place is a fictional country in Africa, the time is the present, and the cast of characters includes a bunch of very silly — or at least extremely self-delusional — Americans. In “The Unmentionables,” Bruce Norris’ lucidly satirical and mostly breezy take on Americans abroad in the Third World, a desire to do good eventually comes off as one more excuse for some not-so-selfless pursuits, regularly creates victims and sooner or later is exposed as a form of hypocrisy.
Fine and funny when it’s light and diffuse, less sturdy when it gets serious with a potential kidnapping, “The Unmentionables” is memorable for its incisive comic commentary on Americans who foist themselves on another country to fend off their own fecklessness.
Not that those whom the Americans want to help are any better, just more honest about their self-interest. Norris even starts his play — receiving its premiere with a terrific ensemble cast at Steppenwolf — with an African teenager named Etienne (Jon Hill), in a dirty sleeveless T-shirt and jeans that hang around somewhere near his knees, suggesting to the audience before the lights go down that we have significantly overpaid for this event, that our own motivations are in question and that he is completely baffled why we wouldn’t rather be watching HDTV.
It’s actually a pretty charming way to start the show, which continues to poke fun at the spoiled class throughout its light, entertaining first act. We’re introduced to, among others, Christian missionary Dave (Lea Coco), who’s a bit — OK, more than a bit — on the judgmental side, and who lectures Etienne early on about how “all life is a series of choices.”
Dave normally would never step into the luxurious guest suite where the play is set (appealingly crafted by designer Todd Rosenthal, with touches of rustic glamour), but his fiancee, former actress Jane (Shannon Cochran), isn’t well — she started feeling ill right around the time he showed her the shed they’d be living in. So the couple has accepted the offer of brief accommodations and medical care from wealthy American businessman Don (Rick Snyder) and his wackily verbose wife, Nancy (Amy Morton).
Don, who’s having a birthday bash that day, is certainly a nice guy, and still manages to be likable after Dave accuses him — justly, no doubt — of exploiting his workers and doing terrible damage to the environment.
Unlike Dave, who gets defensive easily, Don thinks everyone has a point no matter what they have to say. Except Nancy, whose nonstop monologues — delivered with nearly show-stopping but still believable flair by the estimable Morton — have begun to irritate him.
The African characters here are fully aware of the foreigners’ silliness, but that doesn’t mean they don’t play along or fit right in. The pot-smoking doctor who tends to Jane’s possibly psychosomatic symptoms loves to comment on American culture with a sort of folk wisdom that feels off despite seeming right in spirit: “If certain people have all the power,” he says of America, where he went to medical school, “who is to stop them from eating all of the food?” Kenn E. Head is endlessly entertaining in this role, operating at a different, slower physical rhythm than everyone else while keeping the witticisms coming at a fast clip.
Then there’s Aunty Mimi (Ora Jones), whose role in the government authorizes her to snap at people. She’s also a self-anointed realist extraordinaire, which may just be the perfect excuse for her latent sadism.
Norris has had several plays commissioned by Steppenwolf, and his “The Pain and the Itch” will be produced by Playwrights Horizons in the fall. He is a fine crafter of characters, locating their contradictions with polished ease and having them judge each other even more than he judges them. But he’s more successful at depicting the depths of human folly in the first act than at putting them into action in the second, when he manufactures a too-contrived turn of events that peels away self-deceptions we already know are there.
After fighting with everyone, Dave storms out and is seen getting into a car, possibly not in a voluntary manner. This leads to an interrogation of Etienne, and the oh-so-relevant subject of when, or whether, torture can be justified to save a life. Creeping in as unmentionables are the underlying questions of why Americans tend to put themselves into this position in the first place and why we don’t always gather the full facts before acting.
One can only wish the narrative of “The Unmentionables” was firmer in its own right and less self-conscious. Norris’ plot points hit their marks under Anna D. Shapiro’s fluid direction, even if you can see them all coming. But it feels pretty easy, continuing to shoot arrows at a target — the superficially idealistic American bourgeoisie — long after the bull’s-eye has been hit with potent force.