Theater review: 'Extraordinary Chambers' at the Geffen Playhouse
When we first meet Mara (Marin Hinkle) and Carter (Mather Zickel), an American couple in Cambodia, they're just settling into their accommodations and acting very much like visitors to Mars. Carter is excited about this business trip, eager to explore the country with his exquisitely polite guide, Sopoan (Greg Watanabe). Mara, on the other hand, is exhausted from the international flight and testily wondering why she has made the trip.
Jet lag has a way of exacerbating marital strains. But in “Extraordinary Chambers,” David Wiener's complicated cross-cultural drama, which had its world premiere Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, there's more at stake than a marriage on the rocks.
Mara and Carter have suffered the loss of a child and are groping their way toward a tolerable new normal. Their personal story is set — intriguingly if somewhat awkwardly — against the backdrop of a nation still grappling with the aftermath of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
Despite the lush tropical greenery and genial populace, the atmosphere is dense with foreboding. The way Heng nervously wields a pistol immediately sets off alarm bells. Suspicions are further raised by his wife, Rom (Kimiko Gelman), whose gruff, judgmental manner is the direct opposite of Sopoan's gentle civility.
In a rather clumsy scene between Heng and Mara, it's revealed that the doctor has been accused of heinous crimes. Facing investigation by the tribunal established to deal with Khmer Rouge atrocities (the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which has given Wiener his title), Heng offers a temptation to Carter that will reveal just how far a person might go to save what he holds most dear.
Although it takes a while to figure out, Wiener has essentially written a morality tale examining not so much the banality of evil as the rationalizations and ethical compromises civilized men and women make on the slippery slope to barbarism. The play unfolds as a series of secret rooms in a creepy alternative universe that looks increasingly like the mirror image of our own.
For Pam MacKinnon's tense, well-acted production, scenic designer Myung Hee Cho has devised two tastefully generic interior locales — one occupied by Mara and Carter, the other occupied by Heng and Rom — that are hard to distinguish. And indeed, “Extraordinary Chambers” wants to challenge our ability to make definitive distinctions, not allowing us the usual escape of dismissing violent reality as something strange and exotic.
Unfortunately, Wiener's ideas and impulses aren't particularly well organized dramatically. There's no clear protagonist, and the various story lines, which are parceled out as an incomplete puzzle, divide rather than intensify our interest. The plotting, in fact, is so elaborate that “Extraordinary Chambers” occasionally seems as though it's an outline for a screenplay. A film, after all, would have an easier time fleshing out the characterizations while keeping pace with all the twisting and turning developments.
Nonetheless, Wiener's craft has impressive aspects. The bickering, frustrated exchanges between Mara and Carter, often happening in the cracks of conversation with other characters, have a refreshing honesty. (Hinkle and Zickel adeptly convey the backlogged grievances, though a little more humor in the writing and in MacKinnon's direction might keep the tone from becoming unpleasant.)
Sopoan's history, while tenderly rendered by Watanabe, isn't particularly well integrated. But the play's liveliest moments involve the confrontation of foreign sensibilities, with all the faux pas, misapprehensions and condescending niceties. (Gelman wryly captures Rom's impatience with American obtuseness while Chau's suave smile tells you all you need to know about this manipulative host.)
“Extraordinary Chambers” could use some sorting out, but there are plenty of points of fascination inside.
'Extraordinary Chambers,' Geffen Playhouse's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 3. $71-$76. 310-208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Photos: Top: Marin Hinkle and Kimiko Gelman. Bottom: Greg Watanabe. Credit: Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times