'Groundswell'

Ian Bruce's "Groundswell" uncovers the ethical maze modern-day South Africans must navigate.

Some things can never be fixed. It’s up for debate whether post-apartheid South Africa is one of them, but as Ian Bruce’s three-hander, “Groundswell,” uncovers the ethical maze modern-day South Africans must navigate simply to have dinner together, the very definitions of justice and reconciliation seem blurry. Does a white businessman owe a poor black laborer an actual sum of money? Can a racially charged murder ever really be forgiven? With adroit direction from New Group a.d. Scott Elliot, Bruce’s marvelously economical play asks these questions and more, using three men, a dining room and a knife.

Like so many of the little resorts that dot sub-Saharan Africa, the hotel at which “Groundswell” takes place is impeccably staffed, handsomely appointed, and in the middle of nowhere. Tourists usually make the trek but this is the off-season and the only person staffing the Garnet Lodge is Thami (Souleymane Sy Savane, seen in indie pic “Goodbye Solo”).

Savane, along with David Lansbury and Larry Bryggman, does an amazing job approximating not just a local accent, but a sense of local aches and pains. Like many African family men, Thami has a job so far away from his family he must communicate with them by letter (they live in a corrugated iron shack in a slum — cell phones are not a consideration) and send them money when he can. His neighbor Johan (Lansbury) is similarly poor; an alcoholic skin diver, his working days are numbered by one too many cases of the bends.

Together, the men decide they must get into more a more lucrative business: diamonds. The “informal market,” as they call it, is significantly cheaper than the legit trade: simply go to a bar, talk to the right guy, and for a few bucks he’ll give you a huge uncut diamond. Your job is to unload it.

Johan and Thami would much rather continue living as upright citizens — the South African government is selling already-worked diamond operations to citizens who can front a nominal fee, and all they need is a backer. Which is where Smith (Bryggman), the hotel’s only tenant, comes in. Pitch him on the project, urges Johan, and he can’t fail to see what a wonderful investment he’ll be making.

Bruce’s world is so meticulously observed he seems to be setting the scene at a leisurely pace when he’s actually dropping hints and plot points. Why isn’t Johan still a police officer? Does the practical Thami really think he’s going to get a rich businessman to throw money away on a pre-mined mine? These questions don’t occur to us until much later in the show — Derek McClane’s detailed set keeps us in the here and now, as does the series of negotiations over Johan’s alcoholism.

There were snickers here and there at Johan’s furtive swigs of wine and liquor at the perf reviewed, but they must have come from people who’ve never seen an alcoholic at work. Lansbury perfectly expresses an addict’s awful combination of shame and lust, and Elliot beautifully choreographs his silent battle for the bottle with Thami.

Like a magician, though, Bruce has been quietly arranging the play’s climax while we were looking at the bottles and glasses making their way around the room during the dinner conversation. The secret depths to which these characters have had to stoop make for a heart-tearing end to the play, and a more eloquent argument for justice than any statistic or photograph.

Groundswell

Theater Row/Acorn; 199 seats; $49 top

Production

A New Group presentation, in association with Orin Wolf, David F. Schwartz, Janet Pailet and Jane Dubin, of a play in one act by Ian Bruce. Directed by Scott Elliot.

Creative

Set, Derek McLane; costumes, Eric Becker; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Shane Rettig; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; production stage manager, Valerie A. Peterson. Opened May 18, 2009. Reviewed May 16. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Smith - Larry Bryggman Johan - David Lansbury Thami - Souleymane Sy Savane
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