Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
Through March 13
The clash of values in playwright Bess Wohl’s disputatious two-hander takes place between Irene (Betty Gilpin), a chattering blonde tourist from Denver, and Manuel (Carlos Leal), a handsome Spaniard who’s ferried her back to his loft in Barcelona for wild, mutually satisfying sex.
On tour with gal pals, an inebriated Irene, on a dare, puts the moves on Manuel, rather than the other way around. Once they’ve fornicated — in a comically over-the-top coupling at the top of the play — the discomfiting vibe that often attends one night stands between strangers sets in. Irene, a blabbermouth almost never at a loss for words, coasts through it, but it’s a palpable concern for Manuel, a man harboring secret resentments beneath an elegant, distinguished exterior.
As the clueless Irene babbles on, she gradually becomes aware that something is not quite right. The space they are occupying — which looks out on the Barcelona skyline, with the steeples of the famous cathedral, Sagrada Familia, in view — is ill-furnished, filled with half-packed boxes and no running water. Still flushed with alcohol, she concludes that Manuel, whose name she hasn’t quite caught, may have brought her to this shadowy spot with homicide in mind.
But it turns out that if Manuel does want to be rid of her (which he does), it’s more from an urge to usher her out the door than plunge a knife in her heart.
Deftly directed by Trip Cullman, Barcelona presents a contrast between glib American values — Irene is convinced of American exceptionalism and boasts more than once of her pioneering forbearers — and European ones, as reflected in Manuel’s courtesy, composure and, well, class.
Indeed, seen through Manuel’s eyes, Americans are an unlikable lot, especially when the conversation veers towards U.S. involvement in the Middle East, a topic that turns out to have more implications for the story than we initially divine.
At first Barcelona registers as lightweight: a bantering comedy that revolves around a sexual encounter between two very different individuals, whose points of view stand in for their respective cultures. For a while, as the play progresses, the volume and pitch of Irene’s blather grows tiresome. The character is one of those people you might cross the street to avoid. She’s noisy, and sometimes you’d like her to just shut up or get off the stage.
But part of the reason you feel this way has to do with Gilpin’s excellent portrayal. Sure, Irene is hard to warm to, but Gilpin invests her with such spirit and presence that neither the character nor the play can be dismissed. As her gentlemanly foil, the charismatic Leal knows how to command a stage.
Nor is Wohl’s playwriting to be slighted; by the end she’s furnished the piece with sufficient backstory and enough surprises to make the evening worth one’s while. Scenic and lighting designers Mark Wendland and Japhy Weideman respectively coalesce their skills to create a striking visual for a drama that builds to a touching conclusion.
Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood; Tues.- Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; through March 13. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: one hour, 30 minutes with no intermission.