Communication Breakdown

The full name of the play is The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union, which is exactly the number of words you'd need to describe the experience of watching this play: don't bother seeing it unless you want to be bored senseless for three grueling hours.

Rarely do so many words add up to so very little. Scottish playwright David Greig aims for the epic in this American premiere directed by Neel Keller at the La Jolla Playhouse. Despite the play's obsession with reaching something grand, it never goes anywhere remarkable.

The play's lack of direction is unintentionally symbolized by the visual centerpiece of the stage design: an orbiting Soviet space capsule, manned by two cosmonauts awaiting communication after drifting silently around the Earth for 14 years. Suspended some 30 feet off the ground, the capsule is impressive looking; it's large enough for two grown men to sit in. It's the type of arresting set piece that should really do something. But all it does is move in a slow circle over the stage, never going anyplace and never really doing anything special.

Though this play has a big visual style, it lacks an equally impressive vocabulary. And that could be one of the points, as murky and muddled as it may be, of Grieg's play: we don't have the words to describe our bigness or our smallness—whether that's the enormity of existence in this cosmos or the painful reality of telling the people we love how we truly feel.

The 11 characters in this play, loosely connected à la a Robert Altman film, all suffer from some kind of communicative disorder. The cosmonauts await orders that never come. A Scottish couple's marriage is deteriorating—as signified by their lousy attempts at conversation when the telly suddenly goes on the blink. A young Russian woman (the daughter of one of the cosmonauts) shacks up with a shadowy Norwegian, neither of whom knows what the hell they're doing. A wheelchair-bound patient can't remember important words.

But rather than poignancy or desperation, all I felt for these lost, drifting souls was a seething sense of irritation. And I'm not sure if that is the playwright's fault as much as it is the fault of the actors and the director. The most glaring example is the shoddy accents. Unless this is a tactical masterstroke by the director—why bother with accurate accents in a play about our inability to communicate?—the result is a group of actors who are mostly unbelievable in their roles. And that makes this play, stretched so thin on such a broad canvas, unbelievably dull.

THE COSMONAUT'S LAST MESSAGE TO THE WOMAN HE ONCE LOVED IN THE FORMER SOVIET UNION AT LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE, 2910 LA JOLLA VILLAGE DR., LA JOLLA, (858) 550-1010; WWW.LAJOLLAPLAYHOUSE.COM. TUES.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 & 7 P.M. THROUGH SEPT. 3. $31-$39.

 
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