Lolling in a café in a nameless European country, Lowell (Mark Shanahan) asks his companion, “Do I look inevitably American to you?” Sara (the excellent Heidi Schreck) can only answer yes. Lowell protests, “But what if I looked like I knew what I was doing?” Sara responds, “I think I’d still know.”
As Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist suggests, it’s not an attractive thing to be thought American—boorish, overconfident, swathed in false bonhomie. Arriving for a week’s work at a foreign office, Lowell radiates bravado, but jet lag, language constraints, and an agonizing cocktail soon unman him. Though the other characters all speak passable English, they also converse in their native tongue, a Romanian-sounding goulash in which words such as sunfish and circus freak occasionally appear. Unable to make himself properly understood or to correctly interpret those around him, Lowell descends into a welter of confusion and sleeplessness. Washburn, with assistance from director Ken Rus Schmoll, infuses the scenes with acute dialogue and gentle menace. While the narrative arc is ultimately disappointing, the scenes shiver with delicate threat and unease. The structure may be lackadaisical, but the atmosphere is taut.
The Internationalist marks the first production by 13P, a collective of 13 playwrights dedicated to producing one work from each member by 2010. A program insert invites you to purchase the “Blind Optimism Package,” a pair of seats to each subsequent production. If Washburn’s offering is any indication, such optimism wouldn’t be at all blind, merely nearsighted.
In The Distance From Here, Neil LaBute also concerns himself with Americanness, but he stays closer to home, detailing dead-end kids dredged up from his Washington State childhood. Volatile Darrell (Mark Webber) and shoe-gazing Tim (a persuasive Logan Marshall-Green) amuse themselves terrorizing chimps at the zoo and shoplifting CDs from the mall. In anthropological detail, LaBute depicts them smoking, drinking, and screwing—abetted by a short-skirted mother (Melissa Leo, wasted in the role) and lascivious stepsister (Anna Paquin).
Though LaBute assertively establishes character (well, male characters, at any rate), he hasn’t determined what he wants them to do. A few fillips of plot resolve in a climax as contrived as it is absurd (involving the zoo’s penguin exhibit). LaBute may have wanted to indicate a spiritual anomie, a pervasive hopelessness, but that impulse surfaces in aimlessness and forgettable dialogue (“Whatever” occurs as a constant refrain). Toward the end of The Internationalist, in a heartbreaker of a scene, Lowell laments to Sara, “I don’t have a way to speak unintelligibly.” Would that LaBute’s characters had such troubles.