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Drunk Enough To Say I Love You?

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Scott Cohen and Samuel West.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Dysfunctional relationships are seldom more torrid than when incest is involved. And, oh, what nailbiters such stories can be on stage or screen. Who's in control? Will the secret come out? Or does everyone already know? There's nothing more dazzling than the unthinkable, as long as you know deep inside no one's actually getting hurt.

Magnify the picture a bit, however, and the situation changes. The paint-stripping suspense of humanity on an intimate scale doesn't always retain its astringency when writ large, even if the writer is an expert dramatist such as Caryl Churchill. In fact, judging by Churchill's latest at The Public Theater, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, the most estimable talents fall the hardest because they feel they have less to prove. Why go all the way when only half a journey will do?

Calling Drunk Enough even half a play, though, is being considerate. On the script level, it's at best a dramatic exercise. But director James MacDonald elevates it closer to art with his first-class production, which grants it a humor and significance it hardly deserves. This staging is all that prevents Churchill's harangue from imploding under its own self-imposed weight.

For the violently mismatched lovers it concerns are not people at all. Oh, a few minutes of nonsense declare that the American Sam (Scott Cohen) and the British Guy (Samuel West) are lovers, Guy is leaving his wife and family to keep house with Sam in America, and so on. But that's forgotten by the end of the first scene, when Churchill makes it quite clear that this pair represents something much bigger.

Specifically, Sam is really the monolithic United States, and Guy is... well, that's open to debate. Just the U.K.? The civilized rest of the world? Sense and sensibility? Take your pick. All that matters is that these two move from passionate bedmates to persnickety bickerers as soon as pillow talk fades into subjects of international consequence.

Sam can't wait to bomb everyone and enforce his concept of government on the world; he's also a fervent Global Warming denier, but will explode if second-hand smoke gets in his face. Guy, calm and endlessly patient, spends his days trying to convince Sam of the gaps in his logic, especially about the terroristic Israel Sam so openly supports. But Sam is just so magnetic, Guy can never stay away, no matter how angry he becomes. Thus, the codependency continues.

But if Drunk Enough is merely the latest in the line of uncomfortable and unimaginative attacks against the Bush Administration's America, it's sharper and more theatrical than most. The interruptive, staccato dialogue prevents both Guy and Sam from even fully completing a single thought, and signaling the bone-deep incompatibility that both draws them together and divides them. Wondering whether the language will ever resolve itself into fluid clarity is the chief question (and pleasure) of the play.

MacDonald richly highlights every isolationist theme by setting Guy and Sam's interactions on a couch floating (often literally) in a field of endless black; set designer Eugene Lee has helped MacDonald ensure the two men are truly alone in the universe. He's also flooded the stage with irony, ensuring that both men see - and can laugh about - the destruction into which both are plunging.

This gives the play an originality and panache it otherwise lacks, and makes West's and Cohen's performances seem more useful than they are. Since neither man is playing a character in the traditional sense, there's not much to say about what they do: Cohen hits the proper buttons for a generic smarmy do-gooder, while West makes Guy into the epitome of elegant, tolerant frustration.

Is it enough? Not really. This is ultimately a play that teaches you nothing and offers no emotional involvement whatsoever, making it a pointless excursion for those who like their theatre meaningful rather than just angry. When Churchill has chosen to operate in playwright mode rather than lecture mode, she's demonstrated her ability to impart messages with tact, creativity, and wit - her classic Cloud Nine chronicled the identity crises of a century of Britons, and even her recent A Number was a textured and surprising look at the intersection of technology and the human soul.

But her message here is nothing more or less than "America is ruining the world," which - at least in this country - is always subject to debate. On these shores, it would almost certainly resonate more strongly as a three-hour suggestion than the 45-minute screeching screed it is. Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? is just another reminder that screams from mountaintops can fall into fizzles when whispers in the ear can raze cities.

Drunk Enough To Say I Love You?
Through April 6
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater

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