Rosemary Harris and Gene Farberin The Other Side
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Rosemary Harris and Gene Farber
in The Other Side
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In the age of mega-musicals, it's hardly uncommon for audiences to leave the theater humming the scenery. But when you end up doing just that at an Off-Broadway play -- especially one that was written by the celebrated Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman (Death and the Maiden) and stars the estimable Rosemary Harris and John Cullum -- something is defnitely wrong.

What lingers strongest in the memory after seeing The Other Side, Dorfman's rather toothless, 75-minute-long sketch about the futility of war, is the remarkable facility that designer Beowulf Borrit has shown in transforming Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I into a war-torn, rubble-strewn land. (Sound designer Scott Killian and lighting designer Russell H. Champa also make strong contributions). From the mammoth wooden bed that dominates the center-stage cabin, above which hangs the portrait of an angelic-looking young boy, to the half-destroyed brick walls that flank the house, we are given a vivid picture of a land in disarray but its people and traditions somehow fundamentally intact.

Harris, one of the theater's greatest living treasures, makes an equally vivid contribution whenever the script allows her to. A still-youthful 78, she brings her trademark dignity, conviction, and expressiveness to the role of headstrong Levana Julak, and she does everything possible -- if not more -- with a couple of nearly heartbreaking speeches in the play's more serious second half. But watching Harris try to breathe life into this disappointing work only makes us long to see her in the kind of triumphant role that her contemporaries Lois Smith and Frances Sternhagen are now playing in The Trip to Bountiful and Seascape, respectively.

Levana and her husband, Atom Roma (Cullum, a bit tentative and far too All-American to be completely convincing in the role), are being paid by the government to temporarily bury the war's dead until peace is declared and the bodies are rightfully claimed. The still-in-love couple has been doing this thankless work for the past 20 years; they are bound to it partially by duty and partially by the belief that their long-lost son Joseph, who ran away when the war began, will return to the familial homestead once the fighting is over.

Amazingly, that truce finally arrives, but there's no happy ending on the way. A young border guard (Gene Farber) unceremoniously arrives to inform the couple that their house actually sits directly on the borderline of the two warring countries -- and that, under the armistice, they must return to their homelands to be repatriated and never see each other again. Why? He was born in Tomis, she in Constanza, and those are the two countries in conflict. At this point, Dorfman gets a couple of laughs from having the house divided exactly in half, with the guard asking each member of the couple for papers each time one wants to move to the other side of the dwelling. But this joke wears thin relatively quickly, and Dorfman seems unsure where to go next.

In need of a plot, Dorfman has Levana suddenly decide that the guard is actually their son and set about trying to convince him and Atom that she's right. But the young man isn't keen to play along, especially since any sort of familial bonding distracts him from the mission at hand. While there could be some poignancy drawn from this conceit, the character seems more like a construct than a flesh-and-blood human being; and Farber, though appealing, doesn't seem to have the skill to reconcile the young man's contradictions. Then again, he hasn't gotten much help from director Blanka Zizka, who never settles on a consistent tone for the play or its players. This is the production's biggest problem.

I suspect that MTC's decision to produce this play may stem in part from waiting to make some sort of political anti-war statement. Theaters all across the country have been latching onto works that bring up this important issue, whether subtly (Rope), blatantly (Journey's End), or even musically (Two Gentleman of Verona). Yes, let's bring all the boys back home as soon as possible; but, while we wait, let's not squander the talents of geniuses like Harris and Cullum or disappoint sophisticated audience members who could better spend their time writing letters to our government officials.