When a writer wants to explore complex issues, it makes sense to pick a simple format. Lee Blessing has set his 1988 play, Two Rooms, in -- appropriately -- two rooms and limited the cast to four. There's Michael Wells, held hostage in a dank cell in mid-1980s Beirut. And there's his wife, Lainie, who spends most of her time in what was once Michael's study, having emptied the room, cleansed it, closed the blinds and set a small mat on the floor. Deprived of sensory distractions, she attempts to sense her husband's presence and to communicate with him. It's in this room that she receives Ellen, the State Department bureaucrat sent to check on her and in which she repulses -- at least at first -- a brash reporter's attempts to interview her. Within this microcosm we sense huge, murky, international currents.
Solitary and blindfolded, Michael is in a suspended state. He remembers the day he was captured, thinks affectionately of his wife's toes sinking into sand at the beach, finds metaphors in nature for his condition and wonders at his own useless and perpetually manacled hands. He saw a severed hand once, he says, on the street after a car bombing. It didn't seem frightening to him, just horribly lonely.
Stateside, the reporter, Walker, encourages Lainie to make her pain public. Bitter words from her and other hostages' wives may move Washington to action or serious negotiation and ultimately free Michael. Ellen opposes the idea. Lainie should remain silent, she says, and allow the State Department to do its job. Lainie wavers between these two master manipulators, and she eventually engages in some manipulation of her own.
Walker has pointed out to her that the government will do nothing that's not in its own interests -- and the interests of a government and its individual citizens do not always coincide. The politicians will let Michael die, Walker says, because his death will be useful. It will help convince the public that there's no point in negotiating with Arabs because "these are barbarians. Don't try to understand them."
This is indeed Ellen's view. Late in the play, she describes to Lainie how the Iranian government once sent out a horde of young boys to clear a minefield with their own bodies. Michael's plight has left Ellen unmoved, but she weeps when describing this grim event. She also uses it to back a theory that's much in evidence in diplomatic and academic circles today: The world is currently facing a clash of cultures. On one side are the Americans, hated because of their innocence and prosperity; on the other side are savage fanatics, willing to die for their cause, indifferent to death -- including their own -- because they believe in a palpable heaven. This cartoon-like worldview ignores reasonable Arab voices, as well as the strong streak of religious fundamentalism in the U.S. itself. "The crusades are here again," Ellen intones.
The script slides away from specific reference. There's no mention of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, Iran-Contra, or even the name of the U.S. president at the time: Ronald Reagan.
If the play's politics represent a Gordian knot, the love between Michael and Lainie is simple. Perhaps, as scripted, a little too simple. Each holds an idealized view of the other; there are no pangs of guilt over unresolved arguments or memories of fights about toothpaste residue. But the feeling that runs between Andrew Hernon and Melanie Cruz, who play the roles, is moving. We see their mutual yearning for a child, the frustrating and intermittent but ultimately unbreakable current of thought that links them, their silent and simultaneous lying down and rising. It's clear that, ultimately, love is the only thing we can be sure of.
Neither Ellen nor Walker is entirely moral, but neither of them is entirely evil, either. Walker uses Lainie to advance his career, but he also seems genuinely anxious to see Michael freed. Ellen fully believes that the stability of the state may require the loss of American life. For Michael, in his hellish confinement, things are much simpler. "Do you know what a twenty-year-old Shiite thinks about the balance of power?" he asks.
The media's treatment of victims is scrutinized, along with the ethics of using genuine pain for a specific end. Pain manipulation is routine in courtrooms, where prosecutors try to elicit tears from victims and defense attorneys from defendants. In the news business, grief is nothing but a commodity. Lainie is smart enough to understand what her tears might accomplish and ethical enough to despise the idea of displaying them.
Things get even trickier when a new group of hostages is seized, giving Lainie the opportunity to link Michael's case to theirs on television. She can't tell whether this will hurt or help the new hostages. "If you're lucky, when you look back on it, it'll have been moral," Walker says. "You made your best guess."
On the uneven wall of his cell, blindfolded, Michael traces the map of an imaginary country with borders, rivers and mountains: Mount Hope, Mount Forgiveness. He talks about the love of homeland that drives young men to fight and kill. Where Ellen sees poor countries as the breeding ground for terror, Michael believes they're trapped in the same way that he is, existing in a state of suspended animation and longing for life.
Later, as Lainie struggles with her rage and grief, the dynamics that ignite mindless violence become clear. "I want to kill a million people," she cries.
Blessing's script is literate and insightful, but it does have a few problems. Some of the conversations are unconvincing. In their first scene together, Ellen talks more freely in front of Walker than seems likely. There are static scenes, and the characters are somewhat one-dimensional. Michael is always resigned and sad. He never rages, loathes his captors, laughs. Lainie is morose for almost the entire evening. Ellen's perpetual briskness and efficiency, however, are convincing. Thanks to the performance of Kathryn Gray, we sense currents underneath.
Both Melanie Cruz, as Lainie, and David Harms, as Walker, seem to have been directed by Michael R. Duran to go for the obvious. They never work against the text; they never surprise us. In life, people often say angry things quietly, or matter-of-fact things passionately, but Harms always yells when his lines are belligerent, and Cruz is always teary when discussing Michael. Still, both actors give warm and sympathetic performances, and Cruz has a gentle presence that lights up the stage. Andrew Hernon is compelling as Michael, and Gray's Ellen is very good, too. Oddly, you never really dislike her for her manipulations; instead, you momentarily see the universe as she does.
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