The Engine of Our Ruin
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
The Victory Theatre Center
Extended through July 31
There’s been no shortage of political satires on local stages, but all too many of them have been broad, obvious and stridently partisan. Jason Wells’ black farce, here receiving its world premiere production, is several cuts above the rest. It’s literate, sophisticated, hip, hilariously funny and relatively free of political bias.
In a luxury suite at a hotel in an unnamed Middle Eastern country (let’s call it X for purposes of discussion), a summit meeting is being held between Charles (Tim Ryan Meinelschmidt), representing an American think-tank, and Haroun (Brian Abraham), the X-ian ambassador. Charles is the head of a humanitarian effort to aid the people of X. He’s to agree to send them shipments of corn in exchange for any concessions he might be able to wangle from Haroun. But he’s also a muddle-headed liberal who’s convinced that the general who is the ruler of X is evil incarnate, and must be resisted at all costs.
The summit gets off to a bad start because Haroun, an arrogant and thin-skinned nationalist, is hell-bent on opposing American influence, and contemptuous of what he considers to be Western hypocrisy. He’s busily delivering insulting asides about the American delegation and its interpreter Razi (Zehra Fazal) to his underling Majid (Ryan P. Shrime). And Razi has an agenda of her own. An ardent feminist, she wants X to open a school for women featuring law and engineering, and by means of artful mis-translation, she wants to make it a requirement in the trade agreement. Since Haroun is irrevocably opposed to any female liberation in his country, she must convince him that the requirement comes from Charles, while telling Charles that it’s Haroun who insists on its inclusion.
The resulting tangle of miscommunications, mistranslations, conflicting ideologies, and touchy national sensibilities soon has everybody at odds with everybody else. Haroun and Majid walk out of the meeting in high dudgeon, and Charles is left only dimly aware that he may have unwittingly incited a war.
Seasoned diplomat Boris (Steve Hofvendahl) is appalled by the whole proceedings, and regards Charles as a dangerous nitwit. He makes a futile attempt to instruct Charles in the basics of real-politik, reminding him that his first mission is to do no harm. But Charles is adamant in his determination to yield nothing to the evil X-ian dictator, and is soon involved in a plot to bring about regime change.
Director Maria Gobetti has assembled a top-notch cast, and given the piece a beautiful and assured production. Abraham’s Haroun is the perfect embodiment of determined intransigence, and Meinelschmidt’s Charles personifies official fecklessness. Fazal’s Razi is a prototypical fanatic, and Shrime’s Majid is a wily operative who’s eager to foment unrest and rebellion so long as he can preserve his deniability. Hofvendahl’s Boris is an eloquent opponent of government smugness and defender of rationality, humility and commonsense. Spencer Rowe plays an American security agent who may be a secret CIA operative. Shannon McManus and Gregory Hoyt provide loyal support as Charles’ aides, and Kimberly Alexander shines as a scatty, willful, hot-to-trot American tourist who’s thrilled to be on hand for a possible regime change.
Set designer Evan Bartoletti provides the handsome hotel suite, and Becky Parker-Rickon supplies the handsome and appropriate costumes.
The Big Victory Theatre, 3326 Victory Boulevard, Burbank. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m., extended through July 31; (818) 841-5421 or www.thevictorytheatrecenter.org. Running time: One hour and 50 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.