Bess Wohl’s masterfully written play, “Barcelona” under the superb direction of Trip Cullman is a thrilling evening of theater not to be missed. This is a two-character play that is dramatic in essence and deals with some dark issues, but Wohl weaves the tragedy with spices and sprinklings of deftly written comedy and she does so expertly and brilliantly.
The play is in present time set in Barcelona, Spain. Mark Wendland’s exquisite set design was so realistic and breathtakingly beautiful, as we saw the backdrop of the city with the Sagrada Familia through the loft windows. The city was alive and went through changes from sparkling night lights to the haze of daytime. His set added immensely to the unfolding drama. And, Japhy Weideman’s lighting followed the “lightness of being” and mirrored the action of the two characters. There is a lovely scene in which the only lighting onstage is that of the candles. Of course, the set had to be lit. But, it was not apparent. Kuddos to Weideman for the expert lighting which mirrored the drama as the play and the set move from darkness into light.
The play opens in Manuel’s loft after the very tipsy Irene has picked him up at a local bar. She is celebrating a girls’ night out bachelorete party for an impending marriage. Carlos Leal, as the handsome, brooding Manuel is convincing in his silence and in the simmering emotional issues that bubble to the surface before the play’s conclusion. Leal is of Spanish descent and his European background prepared him to play the part of Manuel, who “hates Americans” and their big cars, Mc Donalds, vapid women, and politics. He has a formidable example of such an American in his counterpart, the effervescent, effusive, and frankly irritating nutso, Irene, so well-acted by Betty Gilpin, who was a series regular in “Nurse Jackie.” Her acting as the character, Irene was spot on! She brought Wohl’s extreme character delightfully and annoyingly to life. Magnificent characterization!
I was held rapt in the exchanges between Irene and Manuel. It was an exquisite Tango dance fraught with sexual and emotional tension. The air around them bristled with a back and forth “thrust and parry.” The relief came through the wild comedy of Irene’s character.
The magnificent interplay of these two seemingly disparate characters was an experience to behold. As the play opens, they burst on stage with an explosive sexual encounter. There is an urgency, a desperation behind their sexual encounter which was graphic and jarring. Where will this sexual encounter lead? It is not “Getting to know you.”
Gilpin’s Irene is cloyingly annoying and that quality builds and crashes much like the personality of a manic depressive. She can prattle on rapid fire, and one wonders why Manuel does not send her packing right out the door. But, her extreme stream of consciousness is also the comedic relief. She is exceedingly silly to the point of being inane. But, she also can use her words like a double edged sword to thrust and parry and deeply wound Manuel.
Woven within this tapestry are the threads of the “Ugly American,” the Paris Hilton type that Irene represents though she feels she is “more like Cameron Diaz.” She represents everything Manuel hates. It is “her wars” like the war in Iraq, that have killed his people. Manuel makes a point to tell Irene that a train was bombed because of his country’s involvement in Iraq, for “her war”, and his people marched and “took our troops out of Iraq.” Irene confronts Manuel. “We try to be helpful and still people hate us.” “There is a lot of responsibility in being the caretaker of the whole world.” They have their differences. Irene declares, “Problemo solvedo.” Her attempts at levity with a Spanish twist via her corny witticisms were frankly funny. She finds Manuel sexy in an “Antonio Banderas kind of way.” Irene refers to Manuel as a member of “the Buena Vista Social Club.”
Manuel’s loft is in a state of flux. Is it Manuel’s loft? There are packing boxes all over and the plumbing is stopped up with rusty water. What is going on in this loft with the beautiful expansive back drop of the majestic city? Manuel tells Irene the wrecking ball is going to demolish the building tomorrow to turn the property into a shopping mall. It will all be dust, and he is angry. He must pack before morning. Or must he?
There is an undercurrent of sadness in his anger. Irene is a “self-sabotaging” kind of girl. She does not give Manuel “the best impression of Americans or humanity.” She is vain, selfish, irrationally funny, freaks out, and also astounding in her raw honesty. Words cut like knives back and forth. Each wounds the other. She sees Manuel “afraid to move forward.” Maybe because she recognizes herself in him.
And that is the sheer beauty of this well-crafted play. As the characters shed their skins, sometimes with a bold harshness, and sometimes with wit and humor, maybe they are not so different? Maybe they are “two sides of the same coin.” Different circumstances have shaped them, their views, and their acting out. But, stripped of self-imposed barriers, maybe they have much in common. Maybe these two seemingly disparate souls have come together to heal their wounds?
Irene runs the gamut from jumping Manuel’s bones, to screaming, squealing, barking wildly like a puppy, and crying and laughing hysterically. Manuel’s stripping away is much more subtle, thank goodness. There had to be a balance for Irene’s frenetic energy and hysterics and Manuel provides that balance. I am reminded of the mirror in “the Man of La Mancha” in which he confronts his inner doubts. In Wohl’s finely wrought play, each character becomes the mirror for the other. They tear the barriers down and in their confrontations, the mirror shatters.
What started as an explosive sexual encounter could become a healing balsam. It is as Irene says about the Sagrada Familia “a monument to perseverance.” Irene represents energy and life to Manuel and Manuel represents truth and self-honesty to Irene. What takes place in this delicate balance is astounding. One could never guess. The play is full of surprises.
I ran an entire gamut of emotions myself. I laughed at Irene’s antics. And, yes, in my life I’ve reined in my emotions and restrained myself from yelling hysterically and doing some of the wild things Irene did. I think I and other women in the audience have dreamed of being as free and crazy as Irene. There i something liberating in her expressiveness. I also was moved to tears by the frank and brutal honesty of both characters.
This was a deep and moving play and about so much more than a sexual encounter, more than about political views, and more than about cultural differences. There were so many layers to appreciate. It transcends the layers and is about the very fabric of two souls and how they relate and move through barriers and come together, hopefully to save and heal each other. I found the ending a bit abrupt as a life decision is made. That was a little unsettling and a bit rushed for the promise of a tomorrow. But, I loved the writing, the play, the acting, and the magnificent set.
I am not giving any plot points. You will have to experience this wonderful play yourself and move through this story and into the deeper inner workings. You will find your own meaning as a sub text under Wohl’s play.
This was by far one of the finest plays I have seen at the Geffen playhouse. I thank Randy Arney, Creative Director of the Geffen Playhouse for bringing us this very fine, funny, and boldly dramatic play by Bess Wohl. If Gil Cates were here, he would be smiling proudly.
“Barcelona” runs through March 13 th at the Geffen Playhouse at 10886 Le Conte Ave. in Westwood. Call the box office 310-208-5454 for show times and tickets. Parking is available at Trader Joes on Glendon for $4.00 with a validation available at the Concierge Desk and also underground at the Bank of America for $7.00.