"Splendid. This is a splendid play."
That is my date speaking. He is beautiful and smart, but I'm beginning to wonder if he's not also slightly damaged; twisted in some subtle way that only makes itself known at world premiers of touchy-feely plays about malnourished Russian children and the yuppies who love them. That's where we are, and he's talking craziness.
It's intermission, and I'm doubtful-bordering-on-indifferent; less interested in speculating on what we just saw than in slugging down a scotch and huffing a cigarette before the hellishly punctual techies at the Miracle Theatre start flashing the lights. This is never a good sign. "Do you really think it's splendid?"
"Yes! Everything! The acting, the the set."
"Um. Yes, sure. The writing, too. And it's a great story."
"A great story?"
"Yeah! I'm extremely engaged! I'm extremely interested in how all of this will turn out."
My date is a writer and a snob, and he doesn't like much. As a professional critic, I find these characteristics eminently desirable a long walk on the beach, curling up with some Pauline Kael, spending an hour shattering the dreams of well-meaning talent-vacuums: This is a perfect date, but we appear to be straying dangerously far from the flame.
We've been sitting for the last god-knows-how-long watching the extremely competent performance of a (melo?) drama called The Boy From Russia by Susan J. Westfall, a South Florida playwright of unassailable talent and, I am beginning to suspect, infinite ickyness. The Boy From Russia is the tale of Jack Goldman and Beth Marshall, a married couple, who suddenly become obsessed with the notion of adopting a four-year-old boy from a Russian orphanage in a small town called either Spolensk or Smoliensk, depending on whose pronunciation you trust. The couple already have a son, a ten-year-old named David, and they feel he should have a brother. He's got a bunk bed, you see, and he's lonely.
He wouldn't be, but Beth's had a bunch of miscarriages in the years since David was born, and all that dashed hope has her maternal instinct going haywire, jitterbugging through her body in a not-entirely-sane way that actress Sandy Ives brings off with just the right combination of mama-bear strength and shrieking nerves. It's all made her a little impulsive so much so that a few seconds of grainy video viewed at a Florida adoption agency have convinced her beyond the scantest shadow of a doubt that this little Russian must be hers.
Her husband is less certain. Played by Avi Hoffman with an aw-shucks, good-guy affability that ekes intimations of minor heroism out of a supremely bland suburban facade, his face a mask of wife-pleasing agreeability atop a body going to pieces with anxiety, it's clear that he understands how crazy this whole idea really is. He also understands that, in spite of the craziness, he really does want another kid, and in any case his wife would publicly castrate him if he didn't. And so, following the weird orders passed along by their adoption agency liaison from his Russian counterpart, assembling thousands of dollars in cash that will likely be used as bribes, duffel bags full of underwear and toothbrushes and deodorant and tampons and all kinds of pedestrian shit that apparently go down real well with impoverished rural Ruskies, the couple depart for Spolensk/Smoliensk. Once there, they deal with mobsters, corruption, and a very unfriendly winter. Along the way are constant low-grade domestic flare-ups and endless talks about feelings. Feelings feelings feelings. Watching all of this, my gut has begun doing the queasy barrel-rolls that I usually associate with Lifetime Original Movies. It's not a pleasant sensation, and I want it to stop. Thus the scotch.
I'm trying to explain some of this. "Hon, don't you think this play is a little manipulative?"
"Not at all!"
"Oh, bullshit. All of this weeping womanly maternal blather it's so goddamned exploitive. This is a play that asks no questions. None!"
"I think you're a misogynist, and no, you're wrong."
"What? Point to a question, just one single question this damned play is asking."
"There's tons! What about the ethics of buying a kid? What's with all of that bribe money?"
Good point. Hadn't thought of that. Maybe I'm just the kind of guy who thinks selling children is a perfectly reasonable way to make money. But I won't concede. "No way, man obviously, they're fine with buying the kid. It's not like they want to bring him to the taxidermist and have him mounted over the fireplace. The kid's coming from poverty; they'll do what they've got to do. No questions in it at all."
"And what about the way they're projecting all of their American values onto this totally foreign situation?"
"What? That's not happening."
"Of course it is. You know the idea that the customer's always right; that they can just breeze through all of this with the wave of a fifty. All this righteous indignation, like airing their grievances and calmly explaining themselves will have some kind of effect on these poor fucking peasants like they can just stomp up to the Kremlin and ask to speak to the manager. These people they're dealing with are operating with a whole other set of imperatives."
I'm skeptical, and so I do what I do when I am skeptical in theaters in the middle of plays that I'm not entirely sure about: Try to drink all the Chivas at the bar. But I'll be damned if I'm not utterly captivated the moment they crank up Act II. My date is right. This horrifies me, but I don't mind suddenly conversations between Jack and the Russian "adoption facilitator," Victor (the dashingly passionate Chaz Mena), take on world-historic overtones, forcing clashes between the easy idealism of privilege and the hardscrabble necessities of deprivation. Suddenly it seems interesting that Jack and Beth might be great parents, even though their interest in the boy from Russia has as much to do with accessorizing as child-rearing. They're willing to save him from poverty, provide for him and love him, so long as he looks good in their son's bunk bed. This is a demonstration of the enduring promise of the American Dream at its most absurdly optimistic.
And golly: If I ignore the gooier aspects of this thing, I find myself really rooting for these poor people Russians and Yanks alike. These are good folks brought to life by fine actors, and they're all trying to get ahead an arch democratic value, and one well worth getting chummy with in the theater. Which only goes to show you: It's a violent and uncertain world, but life lessons can be found just about anywhere. When it comes to children, buying used is just as good as buying new, and critics don't know shit.
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