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When We Go Upon the Sea

Lee Blessing's play about George W. Bush is thought-provoking and subtly written, if not completely satisfying.

By New York City
Conan McCarty and Peter Schmitz
in When We Go Upon the Sea
(© Seth Rozin)
Conan McCarty and Peter Schmitz
in When We Go Upon the Sea
(© Seth Rozin)
It's rough not to savor the conceit of Lee Blessing's When We Go Upon the Sea, currently playing at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Americas Off-Broadway Festival. The idea that former president George W. Bush might find himself in The Hague, awaiting a trial as a war criminal is, indeed, delicious. Unfortunately, the timing of the production (two years into the Obama administration) and the play's obliqueness combine to make the piece less than completely satisfying.

Blessing's play unfolds in a luxe hotel suite (an elegant scenic design by Meghan Jones) overlooking the North Sea where George (Conan McCarty), as he's identified in the play, will spend the night before appearing in front of the Tribunal. He's joined there by Piet (Peter Schmitz), an inscrutable hotel staff member, who is on hand to see to George's needs -- and perhaps to ensure that the former president does nothing desperate. George begins to unwind with copious amounts of bourbon, before moving on to cocaine and the arms and sexual charms of Anna-Lisa (Kim Carson), an associate (and perhaps relative) of Piet's.

Blessing's writing is mercifully subtle. After an early jab at George's dimness (when a reference to the painter Mondrian sends him into both a reverie and diatribe about kitchen wallpaper he and Laura once had), Sea avoids the easy and stereotypical jabs, and instead, paints a picture of a man quick to temper, use of force, and driven by his sensual nature. It makes for a thought-provoking look at what guides the man's decision-making processes.

But, as refreshing as Blessing's approach is to Bush, it's never entirely clear what he may want audiences to glean from the play, which could be interpreted as some sort of hell-like or purgatorial experience for George (particularly given the hints of red that become increasingly prevalent in Thom Weaver's lighting design). At times Sea seems to be an exploration of how people wield power, particularly as Piet and Anna-Lisa's influence over George ebbs and flows and certain specifics about George's official acts are discussed. At other times, Blessing appears to want audiences to contemplate the concept of faith -- both real and delusional -- as this imaginary scenario unfolds.

Regardless of intent or meaning, the piece has been staged with economy and gentle flair by Paul Meshejian and is filled with a trio of truly enjoyable performances. McCarty, who distills an essence of Bush, proves to be a commanding presence, surprisingly likeable and even a little endearing as the former commander-in-chief. Schmitz's work as Piet is creepily riveting and Carson's beautifully crafted turn as the seductress, who proves to be something of a tormentor as well, is rich in nuance. What's perhaps most satisfying about these two actors' performances is the understated menace that feels as if it informs even the most ordinary of comments or actions: one can't help but enjoy a bit of schadenfreude as George is discomfited by the pair.


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