By Jim Rutter
For THE INQUIRER
The theatre is an empty space. To some, this understanding can connote hope, freedom, the empty page, or represent the futility and confinement of a prison cell.
Bess Wohl's disturbing new play Barcelona strikes at the core of this dichotomy in both the literal and metaphorical sense.
Wohl fills her empty space with two lonely people in Barcelona. On a dare from her girlfriends, American tourist Irene (Julianna Zinkel) drags an older Spanish man (Robert Montano as Manuel) away from a bachelorette party to his garret apartment for a carefree fling.
Her drunkenness deteriorates into last minute regret, causing him to reveal his hatred for Americans. A battle of cultures ensues, indicting both sides: Europe's lax response to terrorism and our imperialism, Old World work attitudes and American consumerism, ancient high culture and middlebrow Hollywood blockbusters.
Had Wohl's script persisted in this vein, she would have merely wrought an insignificant clash of two personalities that would have left us wondering why Manuel never kicks her out.
Zinkel delivers a perfect performance of vacuity tinged by an undying optimism to match Montano's world-weary despair. Director Jackson Gay focuses on the humor of their banter and avoids easy attempts to instill a sense of danger, instead letting the hostility percolate and cool enough for Wohl's tourist fantasy to evolve into a play of personal loss, misplaced vengeance and moral consequence that challenges each character's place not only in their own lives, but their right to exist at all.
"You came to a foreign land to have fun and find it's more complicated" Manuel tells Irene during one of the evening's more haunting moments. In this world premiere at People's Light, he could have referenced Barcelona, the play, or the theatre itself.
To some, Wohl's ending will insist on the promise of perseverance rather than the prolongation of emptiness. In either case, it's been a long time since a new work has challenged the core of existence to trouble me this deeply.
Barcelona. Presented through June 23 at People's Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. Tickets: $25 to $45. Information: 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org