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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE OVERWHELMING
at the Laura Pels

BEYOND UNDERSTANDING
By Jessica Branch

  Sam Robards, MichaelStahl and Linda Powell/Ph: Joan Marcus

Genocide is inconceivable - until it happens. Or is it? Almost everyone seems to know it's coming in J.T. Rogers's political thriller, which takes an uneasy look at 1994 Rwanda as it teeters on the brink of unspeakable horror. The only ones who don't seem clued in? Jack Exley, a middle-aged American poly-sci profesor (Sam Robards) and the unhappily blended family he drags to Kigali, the nation's capital, in a bid to win tenure by writing about his college roommate, Joseph (Ron Cephas Jones), a doctor fighting pediatric AIDs. The unwary Americans immediately find themselves enmeshed in a web of shifting alliances and deadly deceit far beyond their petty world of academic infighting - and Joseph, a Tutsi, cannot be found.

Rogers is at his best mixing languages, idioms, and motives as he introduces the bewildering array of characters, each of whom has an undiscoverable agenda: The untrustworthy French diplomat who flirts with Exley's wife, the drunk and disillusioned South African NGO worker, the shy servant who befriends the sulky American teenager and gets him laid. The playwright's got a knack for highlighting the undecipherability of a foreign land, the equivocal gestures, the submerged meanings, and the capable cast makes the most of this mystery, smiling even while they wield machetes.

This emphasis on ambiguity allies the audience with Exley and his unsureness about who's backstabbing whom, as he blunders from demanding that the indifferent police search for his friend to expecting UN intervention. And like Exley, we don't know all the answers: Are the accusations against Joseph true? Are the friendships the Americans forge with Rwandans for real? And when the killing starts, will Exley be able to save anyone? Rogers seems to mean to confront us with the many, invariably inadequate, reasons for inaction, from naivety to complacency to self-absorption. But ultimately, all this unknowability just serves to cast the Africans, and even the Europeans, as inscrutable others, and their tragedy as so incomprehensible as to have been inevitable.

 

 


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