Mather Zickel and Marin Hinkle in Extraordinary Chambers
(© Michael Lamont)
Mather Zickel and Marin Hinkle in Extraordinary Chambers
(© Michael Lamont)
Unless you're a scholar in the history of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, you may feel just as confused by the country's customs and cultures as the Deans, the protagonists of David Wiener's gripping play, Extraordinary Chambers, now at the Geffen Playhouse.

Wiener purposely isolates the audiences at times, having his characters arguing often in French and Khmer language. But if you're willing to go along, you'll be rewarded with an evening filled with fascinating revelations and real human drama.

The marriage of Carter (Mather Zickel) and Mara (Marin Hinkle) hangs by a thread. He has brought her on a business trip to Cambodia -- he is bringing his company's call center to this country -- and she's obviously rankled by time they arrive to their hotel. Mara finds her husband patronizing, speaking to their guide Sopoan (Greg Watanabe) in broken Khmer, repeating the few words he knows (thank you, please) over and over. Meanwhile, her constant needling frustrates him.

Carter's naiveté leads him and his fragile wife down a dangerous world of manipulation by people who had turned brutal mass murder for 30 years into a national pastime. Indeed, early on, Wiener mentions Nazism, drawing a correlation between the two regimes, both of which practiced annihilation and torture against their own population.

Director Pam MacKinnon keeps the audience interested while leaving them unsure of the characters' intentions. The story unfolds at a definite pace, getting to the heart of issues quickly. Using Myung Hee Cho's tourist hotel set, she deftly contrasts the luxuries of a vacation room with the cold business at hand.

With watery eyes that signal a coming breakdown, Hinkle shows Mara's despair, as well as her determination to rebuild her family at any cost. Zickel reveals the wisdom and altruism that lies beneath the veneer of Carter's ignorance and enthusiasm. As the broken victim who's survived by shutting out the realities of his past, Watanabe is mesmerizing, juxtaposing his character's subservience to the Americans, his resilience during persecution, and his resolve during testimony.

As the mysterious Dr. Heng, Francois Chau exudes so many facets of this complicated man -- self-pity, fear, rage, manipulation -- that he always keeps the audience off-guard.

Best of all is Kimiko Gelman as Heng's wife, Rom, who can slice through a person with a look sharper than a machete. Venom spews so expertly from her handling of both the French and Khmer languages so that you don't need a translator to know you've been executed by her. Cold and calculating, she's Cambodia's answer to Mrs. Danvers.