Treading on Delicate Grounds 

The uneasy legacy of apartheid is never far below the surface of civil conversation in South Africa, if Ian Bruce’s relentlessly tense play Groundswell (currently having its American premiere at the Acorn Theater) is anything to go on. Set on a fairly desolate diamond-mining coast during the slow tourist season, it doesn’t take much for stories of shantytown violence, gated community robberies and government malevolence to come roaring from the mouths of instantly agitated characters.

And it doesn’t take a particularly big cast for Bruce to touch on all the contradictory impulses and conflicting guilt complexes left by apartheid. In director Scott Elliott’s production (which continues through June 27), David Lansbury (Johan) does most of the pushing and prodding, coaxing co-stars Souleyman Sy Savane (a slightly less desperate Afrikaner Thami) and Larry Bryggman (as a nearly stereotypical British South African, Smith) into revealing their most closely-guarded and shameful secrets. Johan, an ex-cop working as a diamond-diver and handyman at the hotel Thami manages, turns out to the be the one with the darkest past. He and Thami’s plan to buy into a new government-subsidized diamond mining program in the region needs a major investor, and when retired banker Smith rolls into their hotel they begin an elaborate sales pitch.

That evening-long business proposal – disguised as dinner for three and drinks for two (so as not to provoke Johan’s temper, as inevitably happens) – makes up nearly the entire 1 hour and 45 minutes of Groundswell. Without an intermission to slow the momentum, the terms of the transaction build systematically, inevitably, until each character is thoroughly shattered and splintered. A slightly claustrophobic set just the right shade of tacky keeps the three men always too close for comfort, adding to the early humor and extenuating the eventual drama. All three actors are splendid, with Sy Savane (seen recently on the big screen in the outstanding Goodbye Solo) and Bryggman seeming a touch staid alongside the wildly unpredictable narrative motor mouth Lansbury.

These slightly broad character portraits work to the plays advantage though, giving Groundswell just enough nuance to make it both crisply defined and widely relevant. We may be watching three lonely men on an especially lonely, storm-battered coast, but their gloomy prospects are virtually identical to those shared by all their countrymen, even the ones they resent most.

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