Dirty War Wounds

A story about love in the time of the generals

Some theaters, like some people, have a clearer sense of self-identity than others. The New Theatre and its artistic director Rafael de Acha certainly know what they are about, presenting plays with emotional texture, poetic resonance, and often a welcome dose of sociopolitical thought. Such is the case with Mario Diament's Smithereens, a topical, articulate play receiving its world premiere under de Acha's direction. It's a sober play, more thoughtful than compelling, but nevertheless resonant.

The story begins in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, as Argentine journalist David Rabinovich returns from a long sojourn in Israel and encounters two people from his past: his former best friend Sergio D'Alessandro, a filmmaker, and Claudia Gonzalez, a human-rights lawyer who was involved with both of them. Back in the 1970s all three were devoted cinephiles, and their three-way romantic intrigues began when Claudia met Sergio, then David, at movie theaters. The situation was reminiscent of François Truffaut's Jules and Jim, which the trio immediately recognized. Claudia started off with Sergio but David managed to gain her attention. Soon David and Claudia were living together, much to the displeasure of David's father, Jacob, a Holocaust survivor and Yiddish theater star who wanted his son to marry a Jewish woman. But now two decades later, they meet again.

This story setup could very well be the premise for a Truffaut-like comedy about young love and old friends, but Diament takes his tale into much darker territory indeed. The cause for this trio's breakup years before was the horrible reign of terror known as the Dirty War of the 1970s, when the right-wing military kidnapped, tortured, and killed over 30,000 Argentines, Los Desaparecidos, who were suspected of -- but never tried for -- anti-government beliefs. Despite the anguished pleas from thousands of families, the government refused to reveal information about those held in custody and many were never heard from again.

Marcy Ruderhausen and David Kwiat try to make sense of a world in Smithereens
Marcy Ruderhausen and David Kwiat try to make sense of a world in Smithereens

The three friends begin to piece together what happened to each. As the Dirty War began David hurried to Israel, leaving Claudia behind. Meanwhile Sergio, hoping to curry favor with a military officer to further his movie career, learned that Claudia was marked for arrest for her openly leftist views. The officer offered Sergio a cozy movie deal in exchange for his cooperation. Now years later the horrible truth of Claudia's fate and the moral failures of the two men she loved come to light.

Diament's drama is chilling. Though his characters are fictional, the historical context of Smithereens is sadly very real. And Diament, the former editor of La Opinion, ought to know better than most. His publisher, Jacobo Timmerman, was himself a noted victim of the Dirty War and the newspaper was seized by the military for speaking out against the government's crimes.

His point of view here is understandable but he tends to oversell it. The several parallels made between the Dirty War and the Holocaust seem too convenient. The loss of 30,000 people for political beliefs real or imagined is a horrible crime, but it pales in the face of 6 million lost to genocide, or for that matter the enduring genocidal atrocities in Africa. Diament is making an analogy of fascism then and now, of course, but he could have drawn analogies from the left as well. Clearly such atrocities are not now and never have been confined to the right wing (Cambodia), and Diament's failure to say so turns his position into a self-serving political argument. The play bears similarities to Death and the Maiden and The Kiss of the Spider Woman, both also about South American liberals caught up in right-wing terror. It does not, by the way, bear any connection to the film Smithereens, a lightweight American comedy of some years back.

De Acha does a careful job of staging the ephemeral, ever-shifting narrative flow. A wine bottle or a chair left from one scene becomes the focal point of the next, twenty years before or after. He also has an uncanny ability to conjure up a tactile sense of place, of society. As with the Cuba of Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams and rural Ireland in The Weir, this director really evokes an Argentina, despite the minimalist production's lack of visual cues. Michelle Cumming's stark gray prisonlike set, at once grimly threatening yet remote, aids this sense of displacement. The overall tone of this production is somber, quite naturally given the dark material, and decidedly provocative. The problems of three little people may not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but their story has considerable power nevertheless.

The cast is drawn from the loose ensemble of actors that regularly frequent the New Theatre's productions. Paul Tei makes for an interesting, tortured Sergio, leaning heavily on sarcasm and vodka to medicate his self-loathing. David Mann is quite fine as David Rabinovich, the classy, casual writer who is enraged at his friend's failings only to discover his own. Likewise for David Kwiat as Jacob, the lonely, haunted actor-father who would rather stare into his own reflection than engage the people around him. As Claudia Marcy Ruderhausen is less successful, but she is saddled with several difficult tasks -- portraying the enduring agonies of a torture victim and having to give life and air to more than a few archly written monologues.

Smithereens is a thought-provoking theatrical event, but it is a new play and one that could use more thought. Diament's narrative tends to give away key plot turns well before the main characters learn these surprises. As a result the play lacks much suspense or emotional payoff. If Diament rearranged some of his revelatory scenes, holding back information until the characters discover it, he'd have a play with more urgency and impact. He could also use some more humor, especially in the early going, if only to add some counterpoint to the ever-growing sense of doom.

Increasingly the New Theatre is becoming the area's leading presenter of prominent Latin playwrights. Besides Diament's own The Book of Ruthtwo seasons back, the New scored well with Nilo Cruz's Hortensia earlier this season, another world premiere. And next season Cruz will be back with yet another premiere commissioned by the company, Ybor City. Together with Teo Castellanos's NE 2nd Avenue at the Coconut Grove Playhouse and Mario Vargas Llosa's La Chunga at the Sol in Fort Lauderdale, Latin playwrights are currently receiving well-deserved exposure on the local theater scene. And coming up right behind these productions in late spring is Teatro Avante's ambitious Hispanic Theatre Festival, which has become a major Florida event with an international reputation. This trend is significant and the Cuban-born de Acha, with his personal and professional relationships in the Spanish-speaking theater world, is in a very strong position to exploit it. It may be hoped that in the future the New Theatre will produce more Latin playwrights with Latin casts, in Spanish as well as in English.

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