Arthur Acuña in Two September
(© Joan Marcus)
Arthur Acuña in Two September
(© Joan Marcus)
"History is a threadbare fabric [...] full of holes, tears and rents," says a character in Mac Wellman's new play, Two September, now in a limited run at the Flea. The playwright is interested in examining such holes in history; in this case, the beginnings of American involvement in Vietnam, which he traces back to the closing days of World War II. At the same time, Wellman is concerned with the marginalization of the political left. Unfortunately, while Two September, which has been directed by Loy Arcenas, contains some interesting ideas and brings into focus a history that's probably unknown to the majority of Americans, it's laden with undramatically presented exposition and only rarely flares into vibrant theatrical life.

The play is split into two narrative threads. The first concerns leftist writer Josephine Herbst (Jayne Haynes), who talks directly to the audience, sharing both personal biography and historical context. Unfortunately, Haynes' style of speaking is so smug and mannered that she comes across like a particularly annoying schoolteacher. Herbst appears somewhat outside of time, speaking of events from a perspective of historical distance, and including commentary on things she learned after her death.

The second narrative thread is set in the year 1945 and revolves around Ho Chi Minh (Arthur Acuña) and his interaction with two American OSS (Office of Strategic Services) officers (played by Drew Hildebrand and Christian Baskous). Acuña is mesmerizing, endowing the Vietnamese political leader with a strong presence and an overpowering charisma. Hildebrand and Baskous at first speak in an affectless tone of voice, but as the play goes on, more intriguing emotions bubble to the surface. This is particularly true of Baskous, who plays the officer whose political sympathies lie with Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese people despite an increasingly clear shift in American policy.

The play's title comes from the day in 1945 when Ho Chi Minh delivered Vietnam's Declaration of Independence, rejecting both the French colonial regime that ruled the country since the mid-19th Century and the more recent invasion by the Japanese Imperial Army. The document, which declared Vietnam a free and democratic nation, quoted from the American Declaration of Independence asserting all mens' rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Wellman includes an amusing scene in which Ho discusses the phrasing of the Declaration with Baskous' OSS officer, who at first feels proprietary towards the words, but then feels "sheepish and embarrassed" about having expressed such an opinion.

Wellman's point seems to be to make it clear that Vietnam looked to America as a role model when establishing its nascent government. While the playwright doesn't make any direct references that link the historical period of his play with contemporary events, he demonstrates the disconnection between the ideals for which America is known throughout the world and the way that those ideals are not always followed in American foreign policy.

Much of the play stays at a heady, intellectual level. However, there are certain moments that break open the work and showcase the kind of experimental theatrical sensibilities that Wellman is known for. In particular, the two OSS officers are repeatedly distracted by a wind that blows open a window, letting in the sound of helicopters and other noises (the terrific sound design is by Leah Gelpe).

Following one of these incidents, one of the officers states, "For a minute I had the strangest sensation, as if I didn't know how to speak. As if something had taken my voice." This narrative break is akin to Brecht's V-effect, jarring the audience out of simply following the plot and perhaps inspiring them to think about the more far-reaching political implications of the events chronicled here.

Two September could use more of such moments. Unfortunately, too much of the time, the action is presented in a flat, uncompelling manner. Even though the running time is a mere 70 minutes, Wellman packs so much expository history into the show that it comes across more like a scholarly lecture interspersed with dramatic scenes than it does a theatrical work.