Memory Down the Hole

At the moment, the only hostages in the Middle East are the people who live there. Crimes, like clothes, go in and out of fashion, and apparently it's no longer de rigueur to kidnap a few wandering Westerners in the hopes of headlines and perhaps a deal for a shipment of overpriced anti-aircraft missiles. International politics has returned to more traditional pursuits, like ethnic cleansing and the mass slaughter of innocents.

But the inherent dramatic possibilities of a hostage situation are undeniable. A handful of people trapped together in a windowless room -- it's almost like going to the theater. These stagebound possibilities, and not the political context, form the true premise of Jane Anderson's Hotel Oubliette, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize winner receiving its effectively bleak and intense Houston premiere this month at Stages (through April 24).

Although the script quickly establishes that the two principals, both Americans, have been imprisoned in some nameless Middle Eastern country by unidentified kaffiyeh-masked militants, Anderson is apparently uninterested in either the historical or political context of the hostage-taking. Her focus is entirely upon the relationship and interaction between her two prisoners, journalist Glass (John Arp) and economist Shaw (Jim McQueen). The lights come up in the makeshift dungeon where Glass, raving and intermittently hallucinating, has apparently been chained to a pipe for more than a year. In another cell, the older and less volatile Shaw holds off despair by vividly imagining a young and beautiful lover, Gloria (Gage Tarrant). For unknown reasons the men are made cellmates, and the action proper begins.

Hotel Oubliette (the name refers to a particularly barbaric form of medieval prison, essentially a hole into which prisoners were thrown and "forgotten") soon becomes a sort of foxhole love story between Glass and Shaw, temperamental opposites forced together by their grotesque circumstances. The streetwise Glass is aggressive, voluble, profane, rebellious; the academic Shaw is reserved, quiet, polite, careful. Glass is rather vain of his predicament and his journalistic trade; Shaw is often terrified and abject, and has nothing but contempt for journalism. Their stateside memories are also counterpointed: Glass longs for his young wife and daughter, while the badly married/ recently divorced Shaw can only conjure up the ephemeral Gloria, his "fiancee."

Inevitably, the initial conflicts between the two men are overwhelmed by their desperate circumstances and their antagonism toward their captors, who do not figure in the drama except to interrupt the proceedings for occasional minor brutalities. Shaw and Glass come to share card play, blankets, even fantasies, and eventually and unsurprisingly they come to treat each other with a grudging respect, bordering on affection. In this melodramatized No Exit, other people aren't quite hell -- only purgatory.

It is the play's strength and weakness that the nature of that purgation is confined to matters of masculine temperament and style. Although presumably these transplanted, educated Americans would be likely to have strong opinions on politics in general and their captivity in particular, they never speak of either, confining their arguments to personal irritations, good food, ideal women. Since he's been held captive longer, Glass asks Shaw for recent news: Shaw remembers nothing. This ideological isolationism allows Anderson the luxury of focusing on the "character" of her characters, but it also cuts the play off from any larger social or historical resonance. Anderson's "oubliette" is in effect a theatrical lifeboat, and the international cataclysm that launched it no more than a foundering ship, an offstage accident.

The survivors are undeniably compelling. In these straitened circumstances (the grimly evocative set and lights are by John Gow, the threadbare "costumes" by Ruth Dentel), the actors are pretty much on their own in providing fireworks. John Arp gives Glass a brusque, oafish, even boyish ingenuousness, initially irritating but eventually ingratiating to his cellmate and audience alike. Jim McQueen responds with a curmudgeonly, introspective Shaw who manages, despite his degrading situation, to be almost mannered, decorous. Gage Tarrant plays a romantic daydream with an unobtrusive grace. Peter Angel Garcia, Stan Kansas and John Velasquez portray the thankless roles of the anonymous, alien guards, stereotyped denizens of what the program, in a lame piece of verse apparently by the playwright, shamelessly calls the "Muslin [sic] archipelago."

The performances by Arp and McQueen provide the central energy of Hotel Oubliette, a play that otherwise seems always to be sidestepping awkwardly the implications of its own subject. At one point, prisoner Glass sneers that their captors treat them badly all year, then give them little gifts at Christmas, "just like we do poor black kids back home." That moment of abrupt and contradictory insight, never pursued, is as close as Anderson comes to understanding the world that made the hostages and the hostage-takers. The rest is simply forgotten.


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