If Potomac Theater Project has a specialty, it’s “No End of Blame.” During their 20 years in Washington, D.C., the politically oriented troupe produced Howard Barker’s 1981 screed about art, censorship and ideology twice, and for their first season in New York, they are mounting it again. The current production announces that the company — which blends professionals with students from Vermont’s Middlebury College — is loaded with good actors, even if its material is a bit musty.
Like “Politics of Passion,” the series of Anthony Minghella shorts that completes PTP’s repertory season, “No End of Blame” succeeds mostly because of its performances. Working with director Richard Romagnoli, thesps cohere as a fiercely committed unit, balancing the script’s fury with its flights of surreal comedy.
Barker has written a type of contemporary “Woyzek,” sending his protagonist through a world where war controls everything and makes most people either absurd or terrifying. The actors animate that journey with raw feeling.
Alex Draper makes a fascinating focal point as Bela Veracek, a political cartoonist who journeys from 1918 Hungary to 1920s Russia to WWII-era London, trying to find a country that will let him publish his angry, truth-seeking sketches without interference. Yet every nation, even the supposedly liberated England, tries to manipulate his message.
Draper responds with equal parts rage and despair. He also shows us the unchecked ego that Barker layers into Bela, keeping the man from being a downtrodden saint. In his most righteous tirades, Draper suggests he’s more affronted by the fact his own art is being challenged than about the censorship of art in general.
While Bela is full of contradictions, the characters around him tend to be comical extremes, and Barker uses them to make broad statements. In multiple roles, Peter B. Schmitz and Megan Byrne charm from all parts of the spectrum.
Schmitz’s timing is impeccable as a Russian critic and bureaucrat who tries to be Bela’s best chum as he explains why his cartoons are just, well, too forceful to do the Soviet people any good. He’s an excellent example of how politicians can behave like friends when they want to control their enemies.
Byrne succeeds in making a Hungarian model — she’s posing for one of Bela’s life-drawing classes — a hardened casualty of bad times. Her bitter memories of when she used to be rich and sexy prove how materialism can warp us even when we have no materials to speak of.
But even though it makes some stinging observations, the play still feels outmoded. It’s certainly true, for instance, that artists can offer clarity to a culture — even when that culture resists them. But Barker’s approach still feels oppressive.
The tyranny doesn’t come from any particular line of dialogue, but from the entire structural conceit that Bela, an arrogant white man, is the character on the truest journey. There’s even a moment of magic realism in the last scene that bluntly states he could have supernatural power over society if he could only maintain his artistic passion.
But politically, why should we accept that? Why should a man who so resembles the very people who create destructive governments be embraced as a savior? Or if he’s part of the change, why should he get to be the only one? Why should he star in a single-hero play that gives him all the authority?
If anything, the impending presidential race suggests Americans are ready to hear a broader group of voices. Barker, meanwhile, reduces his women to symbols of sexual desire or Bela’s artistic impotence, and most female characters are discussed in terms of their breasts and backsides.
That shortsightedness undermines the play’s relevance. Hopefully, Potomac’s next season will pair its talented actors with a more contemporary voice.