In the despair of wartime, we hope for playwrights to write dramas that make us think, that may even drive action or discussion. Ariel Dorfman's The Other Side might have accomplished precisely this had it been produced at another time. Say, a decade ago, when strife in the Balkans was raging, or 1999, when NATO air strikes on Serbia led to the end of the siege of Kosovo, or 2003, when the global terrorist threat was felt palpably in our hearts, before the Iraq war divided the nation.
Instead, The Other Side is being mounted by Manhattan Theatre Club in 2005, and one is constantly hard-pressed to determine what it offers us. It is set on the border between two nations locked in a decades-long war, and two of our best veteran actors, John Cullum and Rosemary Harris, play Atom Roma and Levana Julak, an aging couple whose son left 20 years earlier to join the fight. Their life is spent in a decrepit shack (the spectacular set is by Beowulf Boritt) in which the installation of an indoor bathroom is considered a major upgrade. Mortars forever land around the home and, indeed, the couple's main work is fetching and identifying casualties of war, burying thousands of young soldiers in a vast, gloomy gravesite, hoping that in some future peacetime, loved ones may claim them.
It is on the day peacetime arrives that The Other Side occurs. For a brief moment there's relief, jubilation. Maybe those loved ones will come soon; maybe those graves will empty; maybe a lifetime scarred by the death of the young will be healed by the quiet life of the old. But then a guard arrives — played with emotionally unbalanced cockiness by Gene Farber — literally tearing out a wall of the house and announcing that with peacetime comes the setting of new borders, perfectly bisecting the structure. The way the guard does his job — border enforcement — turns the play from realistic to absurd, as even the couple's marriage bed is cleaved in two. The rest of the intermissionless, insufferable play is concerned with how this oddly manifesting peace affects Atom and Levana's marriage, and her illusory notion that the guard is their son.
It's a tribute to the extraordinary acting of Cullum and Harris that The Other Side isn't unendurable.
Clearly, Dorfman's allegory is one into which we may pour our thoughts: If the countries' names are unidentified, certainly the characters' names have a Slavic flavor, so the work first evokes the Balkan conflicts of recent years. The Other Side may elicit general feelings regarding the farcicality, the stupidity, of war. But the pace of Blanka Zizka's direction is shiftless, lugubrious; the play's moody hopelessness is numbing more than provocative. If Cullum and Harris elegantly shade their roles with wit and depth, it's because they find humanity in such an antitheatrical mise en scène. There's value in that, but there would be more if the play had something direct to say.
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St., NYC. Dec. 13-Jan. 15. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. (Holiday schedule: No evening performance Sat., Dec. 24. No performances Sun., Dec. 25. No evening performances Sun., Jan. 8 and Sun., Jan. 15.) (212) 581-1212. Casting by Nancy Piccione/David Caparelliotis.