Letter from Algeria, by Michael I. Walker, could be a comedy of manners save for the tragic turn at the end of the play, the subject of the letter in the title. But Walker, a writer with a great facility for witty dialogue filled with literary and pop-culture allusions, reaches for weightier stuff, and that’s a pity. A play that begins as an amusing romp, with a bit of mystery about all four characters thrown in to keep us on our toes, ends with a dirge of a monologue (the letter of the title) and a tragic ending that undermines the amusing manipulations of the first act. Tim (JD Taylor) and Walter (Patrick Murney), two American students on their year abroad in Brussels, Belgium, allow Hugo (Rufus Collins), heir to a waffle fortune, to treat them to expensive gifts, meals and trips to Paris and Amsterdam. Goaded on by Ali (Amanda Jane Cooper), an American acting student who seems to be the mistress of and procurer for the bisexual Hugo, the quartet travels to Hugo’s estate in Algeria, where a fatal misfortune visits Ali and Hugo.
The playwright invites the audience to a game of fast-paced scenes, driven mostly by the excellent, highly energetic Ali, who seduces, flirts, pouts, charms and bullies Walter, an innocent from a strict household (clearly the fish-out-of-water here); Tim, a homosexual with a secret that is never quite revealed; and finally Hugo from one hedonistic adventure to the next. Except nothing in this play is quite as it appears. Ali’s attempts to make Tim and Hugo jealous by sleeping – or pretending to have slept – with Walter fall flat in the face of Tim’s and Hugo’s lack of interest in her. And Hugo’s Algerian Shangri-La is surrounded by hostile natives.
What begins as an amusing farce (even the locale of the first act – a dorm room in Brussels – is funny as the direct opposite of a romantic European place) turns in the end into maudlin melodrama. Walker does not allow us into the lives of his characters – Hugo remains a complete cipher, Tim and Ali’s motivations, beyond their need for money, remain obscure, even the revelation that Walter’s parents have died in a car accident and that he writes letters home to assuage his anguish does not inspire sympathy for a character who otherwise remains a blank. With essential information about the characters withheld, and the pivotal events in the play happening off stage, the play does not earn the emotional weight it claims.
The production of Letter from Algeria, briskly directed by Adam Fitzgerald and beautifully designed by Travis McHale (set and lighting), Amanda Jenks (costumes), Alex Wise (composer), and Ian Wehrle (sound), and expertly acted, could be a triumph if the play did not collapse onto itself.