This has not been a good season for the legends of experimental theater. Charles L. Mee and Martha Clarke delivered limp new projects that suggest they have misplaced their focus and their joy, respectively. Now Mac Wellman joins the parade with “Two September,” a play that lacks the imagination and energy of his best work.
Remarkable as it may sound for a scribe who’s made brainy fun out of everything from Ambrose Bierce to the abortion debate, Wellman seems afraid of his subject matter here. The title refers to the date in 1945 when Ho Chi Minh planned to declare independence for Vietnam. Wellman wants to explore the tangled politics of the preceding months, when the Vietnamese leader was meeting with U.S. intelligence officials to help solidify his plans.
Considering what happened a few decades later, the early relationship between the two countries is a fascinating topic, and there’s potential in the play’s framing device. Blacklisted novelist Josephine Herbst (Jayne Haynes) speaks directly to the audience, delivering her own interpretations of what happened to America (and her own career) in the ’40s.
But the play’s death knell is sounded in Herbst’s first speech. “I wouldn’t talk this way,” she says. “But the author of this little drama obviously feels a little intimidated to take on me and my time, and no wonder.” Right away, Wellman announces he’s uncomfortable with his subject, and he tries to rationalize his own timidity by letting a character argue that he should feel overwhelmed.
No justifications, though, can cover the fact that Wellman treats his characters with obsequious respect. The play is little more than a series of lectures, with Herbst instructing us how to interpret the Ho Chi Minh scenes and Ho Chi Minh (Arthur Acuna) making lengthy speeches to American OSS officers about what Vietnam needs. The play does nothing to challenge them.
Nor does it give the sense that anything is at stake in the present moment. All the talk is about the past or what happens beyond the conference-room set, but what does that matter to the characters actually onstage?
Wellman tries to clarify the stakes with a few symbols — a door is mysteriously blown open, probably by the winds of change; three women dressed as the French flag saunter through, suggesting the sins of other Western powers — but they don’t conjure the turmoil of the world outside. They just provide distraction from the airless talk.
Perfs are equally lifeless, but so uniformly so that director Loy Arcenas probably molded them that way. Thesps speak their lines without thought or feeling. One might read a piece of junk mail in the same way, hurriedly talking through what it said to make sure it didn’t merit attention.
Vetting all signs of emotion is a common choice for the production of an “edgy” play, but that tactic works only when the bloodless acting contradicts the tension in the plot. Grafting the approach onto “Two September” is like chalking up the face of a corpse.