Lee Blessing's Two Rooms creates the illusion of being a politically engaged play. It is, on its surface, about the kidnapping of an American professor in Beirut and the U.S. government's refusal to negotiate to free him. Yet the political content of the play doesn't explore issues so much as provide a blunt enactment of Blessing's premise that the U.S. government is a heartless bureaucracy, unable to include the value of human life in its political calculus. Unburdened by a need for intellectual subtlety on this point, Blessing then creates a dramatic situation that feels a bit like a TV movie—high on emotional turmoil but low on substance, encouraging us to feel, not to think.
And we feel. The dramatic situation he establishes is not without its poignant moments. One room serves as two similar settings. While the captured professor, Michael (Mark Arnott), suffers in his cell, shuffling through memories of his kidnapping and a few tender moments in his marriage, his wife, Lainie (Lisa Rhoden), has confined herself to a similar captivity, locking herself into her tiny apartment, grieving.
Arnott provides an admirably subtle performance, a nearly flawless delivery of what is certainly the best-written material in the play. As Lainie, Rhoden is defiant and shattered and so convincingly tender toward her husband that she manages to keep numerous static scenes from being uninteresting. Her mourning is consistently interrupted by two opposing forces: Ellen Van Oss (Goreti da Silva), a tiresomely one-dimensional government "official" hellbent on keeping Lainie from talking to the press, and Walker Harris (David Ghilardi), an impassioned reporter just as determined to make Lainie speak out. Scene after scene, we witness a tedious tug of war between these characters.
Penny Moore's direction feels underrealized, particularly in the case of the supporting characters, who make a number of peculiarly graceless exits. Ghilardi struggles with the endless melodrama in his lines. Da Silva takes her already patronizing role as an uncaring bureaucrat to a grating extreme. It doesn't help that she is made to thump us over the head with Blessing's one-punch mockery of the U.S. government.
When Ellen must deliver an implausibly unsophisticated lecture on terrorism in the middle of the play, she tells us what it "means" to be an American: to be comfortable and to be hated by the rest of the world for that comfort. "Time will come when we, on an individual basis, will have to pay." It's a funny line—but unfortunately not for the reasons Blessing intended.
"Two Rooms," presented by and at the Actors Group Theatre, 4378 Lankershim Blvd., Universal City. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Jan. 16-Feb. 22. $15. (818) 506-4644.