When a playwright, a person whose entire career rests on the power of words, argues that communication is futile, it's a bit unnerving. In three of his early (that is, pre-English Patient and pre-Talented Mr. Ripley) plays, Anthony Minghella does just that: a couple struggles with their long-distance relationship over the phone; a courting pair vainly attempts to pack their entire biographies into a rushed stop 'n' chat; and a woman quits speaking, only to discover that silence changes things as little as talking does. The Potomac Theater Project has grouped these three works together for a series called The Politics of Passion. Such a title is quite fitting, as the characters' conversations (or lack thereof) play out more like diplomacy and debate than romantic banter.
The series is a sharp and crisply paced sequence of one-acts. While the cast delivers the dialogue with a fluid precision that feels at once natural and exacting, director Cheryl Faraone adds smooth rhythm and clever blocking to Minghella's motor-mouth monologues. Oddly, the production's strongest point is also its weak spot. In overemphasizing the useless conversations and disconnection between its characters, some of the scenes feel meaningless themselves and fail to leave a lasting impression.
The first play, Hang Up, offers a painfully accurate portrayal of the struggle to maintain a relationship via telephone. It is the most natural of all three scripts, and the performers (MacLeod Andrews and Lauren Turner Kiel) offer touching depictions of love stretched thin. Kiel is amusingly antagonistic, consistently crinkling her nose and finding fault in every comment her boyfriend makes. As the more lighthearted half of the couple, Andrews wears a relaxed expression and delivers lines like "I miss you and I love you and where are you?" like they're breaths of fresh air.
However, their longing and loneliness gradually give way to resentment and mistrust, and their conversation pans out like a dangerous dance in which one person will eventually get hurt. The fading in and out of the background radio heightens awkward silences and moments of confrontation, while Kiel's character slowly descends a ladder (acting as a physical moral pedestal) as she's suddenly put on the defensive. Complementing the fine scene is sound designer Lucas Kavner's perfect opening song selection: the Smiths's "Bigmouth Strikes Again," a tongue-in-cheek introduction to the war of words about to commence.
The second play, an excerpt from Minghella's film Truly, Madly, Deeply, does not enjoy the same spot-on progression. Plucked from the middle of a much longer work and lasting about 10 minutes, the scene doesn't contain much in the way of development, and the characters seem quite aggressively hurled at the audience.
Nina (Julia Proctor) is nervously trying to escape from her date with Mark (Michael Wrynn Doyle). In a desperate ploy to get her to stay, Mark proposes that they share as much as possible about themselves in the time it takes to hop to a nearby statue and back. Watching the budding chemistry between the actors is a treat and makes one wish they had more time together. As Nina and Mark nervously feel each other out, Proctor and Doyle navigate the choppy dialogue with panache and infuse their respective autobiographies with contagious emotion and intrigue. Unfortunately, the scene is so rushed—its breathlessness is only exacerbated by the aerobics—that you miss a lot of the rapid-fire dialogue that's given such care in the other two plays.
While the hopping pair just don't seem to shut up, the main character in Minghella's Cigarettes and Chocolate does so completely. Lent has arrived, and Gemma (Cassidy Freeman) has decided to give up talking. This drives her self-absorbed friends crazy and consequently draws from them lengthy confessions.
The language veers between overly melodramatic (double suicides, monks setting themselves on fire, the plight of the downtrodden, etc.) and exquisitely lyrical (a pregnant friend describes her baby as "like a big sob in my stomach," another friend dismisses his not-so-secret love for Gemma as "an irrelevant passion").
Some of the actors fumble with this delicate balance, while others firmly cradle it to powerful effect. As Gemma's stuffy and selfish boyfriend, Rob, James Matthew Ryan is especially hilarious. As her friend Gail, Laura C. Harris makes an excellent transition from excited effervescence to outright disgust at the prospect of having a baby.
As Gemma sits silently with averted eyes and a woeful expression while her friends spew their secrets, her presence feels extraneous. The production would be stronger if she were more expressive in offering some kind of reaction to their confessions or if the character weren't present at all during those scenes. Perhaps the stumbling block here is that Minghella initially wrote Cigarettes and Chocolate for radio. On the airwaves, Gemma's presence would've been implicit as her friends delivered their tell-all monologues.
Still, nearly two decades after its debut on a BBC radio channel, the script hasn't lost its resonance. The characters' conversations may prove that nothing changes, but, fortunately, the quality of Minghella's play hasn't either.