Everyone in Beirut - Jew, Christian, Shiite Muslim - is ``fighting for the very ground,'' says Michael Wells, a central character in Lee Blessing's new play, ``Two Rooms,'' receiving its world premi`ere here at the La Jolla Playhouse. Wells, a US citizen, adds, ``We haven't had to do that for 100 years. We're no different from these people; we've just forgotten.''
Mr. Blessing's play - his second collaboration with director Des McAnuff - is a pointed reminder of the volatility of the Mideast, and of how it feels for an outsider to be caught in the middle. In this case, the victim is Wells, a photographer taken hostage in Beirut while chronicling a city in chaos.
Since 1984, as State Department representative Ellen Van Oss (played by Jo Henderson) notes at the opening of the second act, 17 Americans have been kidnapped in Lebanon. Two have died in captivity; two have escaped; and four have been freed. Nine remain.
The hostage dramatized here is a fictional composite, drawn from testimony of those who have returned and the imagination of the playwright.
Blessing focuses on the separate agonies of Wells and his wife, back in the US, unfolding simultaneously: the wife a prisoner to her own fears at the same time that her husband is chained to a bed, the one blindfolded figuratively, the other literally.
The story is told through the eyes of four people in two rooms. As the lights come up, Wells's wife, Lainie (Amanda Plummer), sits cross-legged on the floor of her husband's office, quietly lamenting his fate and eagerly awaiting news of his release. She is visited intermittently by Walker Bennett (Brent Jennings), a persistent and sympathetic news reporter, and by the State Department's Van Oss.
The lights go down. In the same spare dramatic space, Michael (Jon DeVries) appears - shoeless, blindfolded, and bound on a mattress in an otherwise empty room. He composes letters aloud to his wife, describing ``snapshots of all I see,'' which includes his initial kidnapping, various outings, and room transfers to stay ahead of possible rescue attempts.
The drama continues more or less in this alternating format, with subtle monotony that builds a parallel tension to the events as they unfold. Three video monitors portray images of Wells in captivity. Various slides - used in conversations between Lainie and reporter Bennett - are projected creatively to provide realistic backdrops of Beirut scenes and other real-life hostages.
There is much to laud in this work, which may be more of a dramatized polemic than a play - something this, but not all, reviewers can forgive. Most of all, the writing is lean and energetic, managing somehow to be both entertaining and disconcerting. Amanda Plummer plays Lainie as a quietly smouldering volcano, keeping the audience on edge about when she may finally explode.
Unpredictably, it is Jon DeVries's performance as the hostage that provides the play's comic relief, emanating from often-wry soliloquies about his situation.
``The political realm is under-done by playwrights,'' Blessing told a local reporter the day the play opened. ``I engage the things that engage me.'' Blessing's last play, ``A Walk in the Woods,'' dealt with the frustrations of two stalemated arms negotiators, an American and a Russian. Nominated last season for a Tony award in the best play category, the play has just completed its Broadway run.
In this La Jolla-commissioned work, Blessing makes much of a laissez faire attitude on the part of the US State Department. In fact, the official diatribes from Van Oss are so one-dimensional that she might as well be wearing a sign reading ``bad guy.'' Her position that it is ``appropriate behavior'' for the wife of a hostage to lie low and leave the problem to ``professionals'' nonetheless provides the impetus behind the play's spare plot.
A welcome counterpoint to her one-sidedness comes in the more believable cynicism of reporter Bennett. Accused of being interested in the plight of the Wellses only to make a big scoop, he wins Lainie's trust and persuades her to go public. The denouement may be a little simplistic, but it underlines the fact that hostages and their families have very few alternatives.
``Two Rooms'' moves at a surprisingly lively pace, a tribute to the four actors, the playwright, and director McAnuff. The lighting is by Peter A. Kaczorowski, the sound by Serge Ossorguine.
In the performance I saw, Jennings's portrayal improved as the play proceeded, but his first hour was below the standards maintained by the others.
``Two Rooms'' continues at the La Jolla Playhouse through July 31.