Sam Robards, Michael Stahl-David, and Linda Powell
in The Overwhelming
(© Joan Marcus)
Sam Robards, Michael Stahl-David, and Linda Powell
in The Overwhelming
(© Joan Marcus)
In J. T. Rogers' somber drama, The Overwhelming, now at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, a naive American arrives in a foreign city expecting to meet an old friend. To his dismay and puzzlement, he discovers his friend has disappeared and may be dead and appeals to the local authorities to help. Instead of receiving cooperation, however, he learns through evidence too convincing to ignore that his friend has been involved in shady dealings, particularly with children and misused medical supplies. This makes matters extremely awkward for the American when the friend ultimately materializes.

While Rogers hasn't actually adapted the Graham Greene-Carol Reed thriller, The Third Man for the stage, as one might imagine from this description, he has certainly appropriated several of the classic film's plot turns for his drama. Worse yet, anyone who's seen the 1949 film will know instantly how despairingly this clunky and predictable play is going to turn out. So will anyone else with two smarts to rub together.

Our protagonist is a tenure-track teacher named Jack Exley (Sam Robards) who goes to Kigali, Rwanda in 1994 to research a book and finds himself caught in the middle of the bloody Tutsi-Hutu struggle. As the play begins, the situation is already tense in the Exley household, since Jack needs to secure material for his book or will lose his position; meanwhile wife Linda (Linda Powell) and Geoffrey (Michael Stahl-David), Jack's moody son from his previous marriage, are experiencing some stepmother-stepson friction.

Conditions worsen when Jack receives no encouragement in his search from U. S. embassy official Charles Woolsey (James Rebhorn). He simultaneously gets confusing or stonewalling signals from the Rwandan Hutus who are running the country and are systematically taking revenge on the people they see as their former Tutsi oppressors. Moreover, while Jack looks for old friend Joseph (Ron Cephas Jones), who frequently appears to him in flashbacks, Linda and Geoffrey befriend locals like household man Gerard (Chris Chalk), who may or may not be what they claim to be.

Speaking of people not being whom they seem to be -- and speaking of flicks like The Third Man, The Ugly American and, more recently, Syriana -- it's hard to believe that any American who's had access to those films or merely to today's headlines would be as gullible and as easily manipulated as Jack, Linda, and Geoffrey.

Surely, no one in Rogers' audience would be foolish enough to trust the oppressing and oppressed Overwhelming characters as far as they could throw them. After all, Jack teaches political science and so should have some savvy. Rogers needs to nail another way to grapple with the topic of social consciousness and responsibility.

The cast put their backs into the script at hand, but neither they nor director Max Stafford-Clark -- who helmed the show's critically acclaimed London production -- are able to mask the play's glaring deficiencies. Nor is much help provided by a set that designer Tim Shortall wants to be all-purpose but only looks like a cluster of mismatched chairs, end tables, and lettuce heads.

According to the program, Rogers takes his title from the Mongo word "lokeli," which uses the adjective "overwhelming" as a noun and applies it to the massacre of the Congolese begun under King Leopold II in the late 19th century. While Rogers is to be commended for a bold attempt to take on a major international issue at a time when similar events are unfolding in Darfur, the playwright seems to be himself overwhelmed by the challenge of shaping current events into cogent theater.