Most dramatists attempting to reiterate the crucial indivisibility of the personal and the political set up characters in easily recognizable circumstances who come to a political awakening via a series of dramatic events. Not Caryl Churchill. Neither of the characters in “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?” ever argues that idea, but every intense moment of the eight scenes in this 50-minute piece absolutely embodies it. Love it or loathe it — and it will certainly leave some auds cold, if not exasperated — this is unquestionably drama at its most austerely pure.
Churchill is unquestionably the most influential dramatist since Pinter. Pinter changed forever the way writers use language; Churchill has constantly exploded and refashioned theatrical forms, marrying the shape and movement of a play to the ideas it expresses.
Over the last decade, her work has leaned toward conceptual art: ideas distilled down to strikingly spare texts doing an extraordinary amount of dramatic work, nowhere more so than in this play’s startlingly tense opening scene.
Jack (Stephen Dillane), an Englishman who loves his wife and kids, has returned for a surprise visit with American Sam (Ty Burrell), a man with whom he fell deeply in love after they met one night in a bar. Sam is returning home the next day and suggests Jack abandon everything to join him. Jack wrestles with his conscience. He wants to know the limits of the relationship.
Despite misgivings, both men are keen to take the leap. All that is achieved in just 30 terse, incomplete lines of dialogue.
With the opening of the second scene, Churchill’s big idea is made manifest. It’s an exploration of the men’s new relationship, but from the opening line — Sam’s single word “elections” — the discourse shifts to the wielding of giant political power in foreign countries. The transatlantic relationship Churchill is writing about is the one between Britain and America.
When Jack cries out, “Love you more than I can,” it has been preceded by excited references to propaganda campaigns and political manipulation everywhere from Vietnam to South America, via Afghanistan and Iran. The scene climaxes with a litany of places bombed by their alliance.
As the play progresses, auds see the couple go through the expected stages of such a relationship — doubt, guilt, a bust-up, making up and the unease once trust has been lost. All that mirrors the positions of the countries.
Successive scenes view the relationship through depictions of shared policies and responsibilities with regard to world trade, drugs, nuclear weapons, counter-terrorism and torture, climaxing with the threat to the planet.
Absolutely none of this is handled in standard expository fashion.
Unlike dramatists who treat auds as passive, letting them soak up overly explanatory exposition and information, Churchill withholds.
It’s closer to poetry than traditional playwriting. Every line is a fragment. Churchill moves beyond overlapping dialogue, where characters continue speaking while being interrupted, to invents another form: The starts and ends of sentences are shorn off, leaving just the important part. It makes Mamet look positively prolix.
Her pared-down use of language creates gaps for auds to fill in, thus allowing them to make connections for themselves. Doing that amount of imaginative work keeps the ideas and action of the play in auds’ heads.
The merciless distillation of the writing is mirrored by James Macdonald’s typically exacting production. There is not a single stage direction in the text, but Macdonald and designer Eugene Lee present the play on a single sofa that appears to be suspended in almost palpable darkness.
With every brief scene change, the sofa rises higher within the square, gilt-edged picture-frame, which lighting designer Peter Mumford decorates with lightbulbs, like a giant dressing-room mirror. The blaze of that light emphasizes the darkness within the frame, with the two actors picked out in a comfortingly warm glow. Props appear, as if by magic, out of the darkness, including a lit cigarette that Jack smokes to Sam’s absolute horror. His scandalized feelings about passive smoking and death are a welcome moment of laugh-aloud humor, coming amid cheerful discussions of genocide.
Both Dillane’s calm but troubled Jack and Burrell’s more dominant Sam — as in “Union Jack” and “Uncle Sam” — charge up every silence and held moment of the play by constantly playing the stages of the relationship, rather than taking positions on the politics. They and director Macdonald know Churchill’s governing ideas can take care of themselves.
There is, however, a structural weakness in the drama. Churchill reveals her hand too early. With auds swiftly attuned to the “real” content — the shared guilt and responsibility for global politics and the dominance of bullying Western power plays — in dramatic terms, the play doesn’t develop. Although ideas of individual scenes change, the thrust grows predictable.
Churchill’s poetic overview of politics and her refusal to present a straightforward thesis will infuriate anyone who believes a play must, in traditional fashion, argue a case via opposing positions before coming down on one side, thus providing “the message” or “the answer.” But looking to Caryl Churchill for that is like looking at a Rothko and getting cross that it isn’t a Rembrandt.