Touched by Tragedy

Two one-act plays featured in a double bill at the Kraine Theater view recent terrorist attacks—the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings—through the prism of individual lives touched by tragedy. This approach yields rich and complex character studies in the Spanish drama Ana 3/11 and a superficial and poorly crafted play in its American counterpart, A River Apart. In acclaimed Spanish playwright Paloma Pedrero's Ana 3/11, which has been produced in Spain, London, and Cuba and at the 2006 New York International Fringe Festival, three women named Ana await word about the same man, Angel Vera Garcia, who is trapped in the train bombings. His possible death ricochets through their lives, cracking open secrets and prompting searing personal reckonings.

In its examination of the cramped lives of women in a society dominated by men, the play takes its cues from Spanish classical theater works such as Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba. To echo that theme, scenic designer David Ogel rings the stage with men's suit jackets hanging on coat hooks.

Ana 3/11, tautly directed by Anjali Vashi and translated by Phyllis Zatlin, consists of three linked vignettes, although all three Anas remain onstage at all times. In the first, Angel's lover (Ana de los Riscos) frantically tries to contact him, pouring out her anxiety, anguish, and frustration into the messages she leaves on his cellphone. In the following vignette, Angel's cellphone rings insistently in his bag, which his wife (Catherine Eaton) has with her as she waits at the hospital. In the final scene, which does not interlock with the prior two and never reaches full climax, Angel's aged and partially senile mother (Charlotte Hampden) recalls her own husband's extramarital affairs even as she has premonitions of her son's death.

While each actress delivers strong performances, Eaton is especially affecting as the strong-willed wife who forces herself to deal directly with the betrayal from which she has long averted her eyes.

In A River Apart, television writer Michelle Schiefen sets out to show how Sept. 11 briefly brought the city's residents together. The play, which has the same director and design team as Ana 3/11, depicts six neighbors, neatly divided by class, race, and age, who congregate on the roof of their Brooklyn apartment building after the second tower is hit but before the towers' fall: the building's super, an all-American corporate guy, a young Jewish woman from Connecticut, a college film student of Iranian descent, a middle-aged white mother, and a 75-year-old Mexican woman.

The personal connection to the attacks is much more tenuous than in Ana 3/11. Nevertheless, everyone frets anxiously about the difficulty of contacting family members because the cellphone circuits are overloaded and the phones in the apartment building aren't working. Demonstrating their instant camaraderie, the six lend each other their cellphones.

This new solicitude and self-involvement are grating in contrast to the indifference that the characters show toward the lives cut short across the river. The one exception is the elderly Rosa (Rhoda Pauley), who says, "Oh God, all the mothers with children up there."

The need for verisimilitude is great when your audience has experienced firsthand the events being dramatized onstage. Yet Schiefen gets the details wrong. The snippets of radio reports—when the super (Matt Alford) periodically unplugs his headphones—don't sound like the charged and agitated live coverage of those first hours. No mention is made of the people jumping to their deaths—an unforgettable element of that interval before the towers collapsed. The burning towers themselves—which you'd think would be a transfixing sight—command very little attention. A family member who was in Midtown that morning is said to have reached and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge in less than an hour.

The six cast members struggle valiantly to bring their characters to life, but this shallow play defeats them.

While the personal focus of each work in 11 is a valid choice, it's disappointing that neither playwright saw the need to grapple with the larger meaning of this new age of terrorism at home. All we get are emotional tirades against the terrorists. Any personal reflections, however raw and provisional, about the causes and consequences of these attacks might have helped place these individual lives—and these plays—into the broader flow of history.

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