“THE INTERNATIONALIST” = BEFUDDLING FUN

(Charles Kruger)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“The Internationalist” by Anne Washburn, produced by Just Theater. Director: Jonathan Spector. Scenic Design: Jenn Scheller. Costume Design: Christine Crook. Lighting Design: Jim French. Sound Design: Zachary Watkins. Graphic Design: Julie Baum. Props Maser: Claire Rabkin. Production & Stage Manager: Alison Ostendorf. Asst. Director & ASM: Mark Meiklejohn. Producer: Glenn Carroll. Co-Artistic Director: Molly Aaronson-Gelb.

Paul/Simon: Michael Barrett Austin. Irene: Lauren Bloom. Sara: Alexandra Creighton. James: Kalli Jonsson. Nicole: Harold Pierce. Lowell: Nick Sholley.

Anne Washburn is a playwright to be reckoned with. Her work has been produced all over the country at some of our most distinguished theatres:  Actors Theatre of Louisville, American Repertory Theatre, The Folger and others. She has been awarded a Guggenheim and received a commission from Yale Rep.

Just Theater is a passionate player in the current Bay area renaissance of new and experimental work, pursuing a mission that includes “developing new plays by local playwrights” as well as introducing other new work. They often premiere original pieces in keeping with their aim to provide an “artistic home to theatrically adventuous voices addressing morally complex questions.”

Lauren Bloom, Kalli Jonsson and Harold Pierce in Just Theater's west coast premiere of Anne Washburn's "The Internationalist". Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

So when Washburn and Just Theater announce they are bringing us the west coast premiere of Washburn’s “The Internationalist”, we lovers of the new certainly sit up and take notice.

The premise of “The Internationalist” involves an American abroad in an unnamed, perhaps Eastern bloc, country, dealing with complex cultural and economic issues.

One certainly comes to the theatre expecting work that will be serious and thought provoking. Indeed, what we get is a profoundly Marxist reflection on cultural and economic themes.

That’s “Marxist” as in Groucho, Harpo and Chico.

Washburn has written two plays: one appears to be a serious drama involving complex office politics, love affairs, moral crises, class conflict and financial high drama. But she has written it in a ridiculous-sounding made-up language. The parts that remain in English are mostly just odd. Very odd.

The result: the entire evening degenerates into a long series of ridiculous non-sequiturs punctuated by goofy cliches and absurdly exaggerated melodrama. It is like nothing so much as a Marx Brothers movie and I mean this as a high compliment.

The fractured communications promise, at first, to ultimately reveal some kind of sense, but as the piece progresses the situation (which we can only vaguely understand) gets more and more out of control and people, logic, language, sense completely fall apart.

At one point, the hero finds himself as a tourist in an ancient cathedral with an old woman who seems to have wandered in from The Wolfman and gesticulates at him madly before breaking into senseless song.

Later, one of the foreigners with an upper class English accent appears to have wandered in from a James Bond film.

There is a bartender of bizarre aspect and fixed smile who may or may not be an insane criminal poisoner and mass murderer or perhaps a patriotic hero. Or both.

There is some love interest.

None of it makes sense, but all of it seems to fit together like some sort of mad machine.

Chico and Groucho Marx in "A Night At The Opera". (Washburn's "The Internationalist" has clearly been influenced by a Marxist perspective.)

Remember the moment in “A Night At The Opera” when Groucho tries to explain a legal contract to a doubtful Chico? Groucho is trying to explain a sanity clause, but this is too much for Chico who responds sarcastically: “Ahhh, you can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause.”

When Just Theatre and playwright Washburn signed the contract for this production there was, assuredly, no sanity clause.

Director Jonathan Spector has done a marvelous job of guiding his actors through the phony language so that we always know that they know what they are talking about, even if we don’t. The company is excellent in every respect.  Jenn Scheller’s set design is particularly effective and, at times, quite funny in its own right.

This unusual comedy will leave you smiling and scratching your head. And perhaps, like me, you’ll have a bellyache from laughing so hard.

Just Theater has a policy of selling all tickets on a “pay what you can” basis, so you have no excuse not to check this out.

“The Internationalist” plays at The Ashby Stage in Berkeley for a limited run through November 20. For further information, click here.

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