The Flea's narrow black box basement theater has been decorated with dozens, maybe hundreds of white porcelain tea cups for Horizon Theatre Rep
's staging of Albert Camus
' The Misunderstanding
(through November 22). It's a nice visual motif, though it directs our attention towards the wrong moment in the play: when Jan (Rafael De Mussa) drinks the poisoned tea served to him in an inn kept by his mother and sister where he is staying under a pseudonym. That Martha (Wendy Allegaert) and the Mother (Ellen Crawford) drug and kill this apparently unremarkable wealthy traveler as they've done several others before him isn't the kernel of the narrative, it's almost a sure thing from the get-go. What drives the play is the relationship between mother and daughter, their guilt (or lack thereof) over how they plan to escape the dreary valley where they've spent their entire lives and the horrible misunderstanding that finally drives them apart.
As with all Camus' work, and existentialism in general, the tragedy here stems from individuals' decisions to forfeit their humanity. Sealed away in a rainy Eastern European valley, Martha and her mother have spent decades numbing themselves, shutting down their various capacities for emotion and empathy to better tolerate their pathetic lot in life, keeping an inn that they can only support by murdering the wealthiest of its few patrons. As the warmer of the central pair, 15-year ER
vet Crawford gives the mother an air of comfortable resignation. She wants better for her needy daughter, but has essentially come to terms with her old age and only wishes she no longer had to work (let alone kill). Crawford plays the part with calm, poise and plenty of charisma, controlling the often tedious first act of the play.
Camus' script is sufficiently flexible to let certain editing and casting decisions shift the focus onto Jan, his mother or Martha, and as this production enters its second act the latter emerges as its primary force. Though she fumbled with text early on—it's hard to understate how greatly a new translation would have helped this production—Allegaert eventually turns into a vicious yet heartbreakingly vulnerable and pitiful monster. In one scene in the third act she tells her mother with deep-seated hatred that she would have killed Jan even if she'd known he was her brother, and then delivers a wrenching and tearful monologue about the few dreams she still harbors for a life in a city by the sea. Allegaert plays Martha as a spectacular and messy confluence of anger, bitterness, jealousy, desperation and dependency. Her performance is scrappy and, eventually, riveting, where Crawford's is graceful and almost self-effacing.
The problems of the awkward and hopelessly under-edited text prove insurmountable for the supporting cast of De Mussa and Erin Cherry (as Jan's wife Maria)—Stuart Rudin, as The Manservant, has one line and does admirably with his thankless role as comic relief. Handsome as he is, De Mussa's thick Spanish accent adds a rather confusing wrinkle to this play's already confusing geography—written by a Frenchman, set in a nameless, landlocked country in Eastern Europe. This also makes many of his lines very difficult to understand, whereas the women playing his relatives and wife have no discernible regional inflection.
Partly due to this miscasting, but also as a result of the first act's excessive exposition and decorum, the production only becomes discernibly lighter and more dynamic once the weight of Jan's death begins to bear down on Martha and her mother. Cherry nearly overacts her way back into the picture with her closing breakdown, but her failure to do so says more about the outdated translation and Alex Lippard's stiff direction. Save the relationship between Martha and her mother, and the former's progression from determination to desperation and, finally, defeat, the rigid language of the text keeps this production of The Misunderstanding
from progressing towards total ruin as fluidly and helplessly as it should.
Camus' work is full of cutting, poignant moments borne of a fear of people's inability or unwillingness to change their circumstances. He wrote the play one year after his famous debut novel The Stranger
, and it premiered in Nazi-occupied Paris, where he was simultaneously editing a Resistance newspaper. When Martha laments near the end of the play, "Crime too means solitude, even if 1,000 people join together to commit it," it's hard not to picture the passionate young writer dodging an army of criminals while distributing his clandestine publication throughout Paris. More than just an artifact of its time, though, The Misunderstanding
engages subjects that will never lose currency: our complacency in the face of everyday injustices, our willingness to accept routine problems rather than risk fixing them, our often blind devotion to the idea of family and the monumental yet malleable concept of home.
Some liberal cutting, especially in the first act, and a less convoluted translation might have made this a truly memorable production. Instead, the tea cups placed about the set began to speak less of poisonous hospitality or inescapable circumstances and more of debilitating preciousness. Afraid to risk breaking anything, the players (save Allegaert and, briefly, Cherry) shy away from the text, tip-toeing around it when they should be spilling its contents all over. To treat Camus' play about the casual, familiar brutality of modern life so delicately is to misunderstand it in a very fundamental way.
(photo credit: Richard Termine)