Next to Thomas, Gary Owen, whose Ghost City is playing in New York for two weeks as part of the Brits Off Broadway theater festival, is probably the most recognized name in contemporary Welsh theater. Judging from this play, it's a pity that he is so little known on this side of the pond. Owen has a preternatural talent for creating memorable characters and crafting beautifully poetic language. He also has his finger on the pulse of popular culture in a way that makes his work accessible and relevant to American audiences; this play sets out to prove that the Welsh capital, Cardiff, is not dissimilar to any other major city of the world.
Ghost City, presented by the National New Writing Company of Wales, Sgript Cymru, is a series of monologues and duologues for assorted city dwellers played by four actors. The opening monologue features a Welsh radio shock jock who stirs controversy by saying the word "sod" on the air. At first, this character seems tame by American standards; after all, Howard Stern has been known to radiocast live sex, though the FCC recently went ballistic when he sullied his show with the word "fuck." As written by Owen, the Welsh DJ is familiar yet unique, abrasive yet likeable.
The range and depth of the characters is astonishing and each one undergoes a sharp change during the course of each segment. For instance, a World War II veteran drones on about the war to a bored kid who has apparently heard the older man pontificate before, but this funny scene becomes poignant when the vet shares his memories about the fire bombing of Dresden, recalling how "The sky turned red." Another scene begins with a serious confrontation between a newspaper editor and a woman who protests the paper's pro-Palestinian coverage but takes a bizarre, comic turn when the man reveals that he's really part of a "neo-Luddite hip-hop collective" out to intimidate political opponents.
Ghost City has too many characters and surprises to spoil in one review; the piece succeeds in presenting a panorama of allegorical figures in postmodern urban life. The playwright tries to tie them all together but the connections are subtle, bordering on cryptic, as in the work of Harold Pinter; still, the individual episodes are consistently thoughtful and engaging. Owen's style, consisting of short sentences punctuated by expletives and local color, also owes a lot to Pinter and the Welshman shows the same type of social consciousness that can be found in Pinter's life and work. The play takes on issues of racism, class conflict, drug use, domestic abuse, and political terrorism with breezy insight.
Ultimately, Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood seems to be a bigger influence on Owen than anything that Pinter wrote. While Thomas's play follows the people of a fictitious provincial town called "Llareggub," Ghost City transplants the premise to an actual Welsh metropolis. Both plays are written in verse, but Owen's poetry is so seamless and colloquial that many theatergoers may mistake it for prose.
It helps that the playwright has a talented pool of actors to speak his lines. The most famous of them is Rachel Isaac of the hit Britcom The Office and Deborah Warner's stage production of Medea; Isaac's remarkable performance blends the natural comedy of her television persona with the fiery drama of her stage career. Most of the characters played by Celyn Jones represent the working stiff and the provincial fellow in a changing world; the actor illustrates and transcends these archetypes with understated flair. Jonathan Floyd is a riot as a club hopper trying to seduce his girlfriend's sister; his boyish characters have the expression of restless youth found in James Dean movies. Nia Gwynne is a chameleon in roles ranging from a judo instructor to a frustrated mother.
The cast and crew, under Simon Harris's taut direction, are without a weak link. Designer Soutra Gilmour lays a batch of faux-granite cubes symmetrically around the set to serve as chairs, cars, cabinets, podiums, and even urinals throughout the play. The minimal layout is effective and it sparks the audience's imagination into overdrive. Charles Balfour's sleek lighting establishes the ever-shifting moods of the play without seeming obtrusive. Although no sound designer is listed in the program, somebody should take credit for the hip score of free jazz and electronica that punctuates the play's dramatic moments.
Welsh theater hardly ever appears on New York stages but, if Ghost City is any indication, this is an oversight that should be corrected.