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Theater review: 'In a Garden' at South Coast Repertory

March 14, 2010 |  5:00 pm

In a garden 1 
Probably the chief pleasure of Howard Korder’s “In a Garden,” his carefully meted-out drama now receiving its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, lies in the way the cultural sensibilities of its two main characters — one Arab, the other American — instantly get garbled in translation.

Language isn’t the primary obstacle between Othman (Mark Harelik), the cultural minister of a fictitious Middle Eastern country, and Hackett (Matt Letscher), whose claim to fame is having been included in a coffee-table book about up-and-coming architects younger than 40. Othman’s English is impeccable with the caveat of a few pronunciation miscues (“subtle” and “Tucson” understandably trip him up).
Having studied in the U.S. and having once had a Laguna Beach girlfriend, Othman has more than a passing acquaintance with American idioms, something he has tried to keep up through regular screenings of such Hollywood films as “Die Hard” and "Dead Poets Society.” But he also knows that the direct manner of Americans is completely antithetical to his culture’s circuitous way of doing business. 

In a garden ii This contrast is drawn out in the gentlemen’s first encounter. Othman has asked Hackett to travel roughly 5,000 miles to discuss the commissioning of a building project, but he approaches the subject like the dance of seven veils, revealing only strategic glimpses of what this ambitious architect is panting to see.

Time is money for Hackett, but Othman controls not only the purse-strings but also the glacial pace of negotiations. Their talks commence in 1989 and continue for years through different presidential administrations, international crises and various ups and down in their own personal and professional lives. 

The irony is that the scale of the building is absurdly modest, a summerhouse in a garden that faces a landmark mosque. Yet there’s more to the project than meets the eye. This gazebo supposedly harks back to an idyllic memory in Othman’s childhood and requires Hackett to transcend his own ego while envisaging a space of silent beauty. 

“You are my architect,” Othman tells Hackett after rejecting his first set of plans. “I will build you.”  

The line between mentoring and manipulation is always a hazy one. But here it’s further complicated by unimaginably hefty geopolitical baggage. 
Korder structures his drama like an onion of metaphorical meanings. Every time you think you’ve caught on to what’s he’s writing about, he peels back another thematic layer. Ambiguity prevails in this series of colloquies, which expands to include Jarion Monroe as the dictator holding all the cards and Phillip Vaden as an American Army captain who appears at a radically new phase in the country’s history.
What ultimately pulls the play together is a fascination with the compromises that bedevil the artistic process every bit as much as they stymie diplomatic progress. In this sense, architecture mirrors politics — both adapting dreams into flawed but concrete realities.  

“In a Garden” possesses the subdued intelligence and unflashy dramatics that distinguish Korder’s best known work (“Boys’ Life,” “Search and Destroy,” “The Hollow Lands" and “Sea of Tranquility”). The play, resonant yet elusive, succeeds in staying one step ahead of its audience. But the intentionally talky and circular nature of the work compels actors to make a meal out of minor moments. 

Fortunately, the production is directed by the reliable David Warren (who has staged SCR productions of Nicky Silver’s “Raised in Captivity” and Richard Greenberg’s “Hurrah at Last”), and Harelik and Letscher are resourceful in extracting as much theatricality as they can from Othman and Hackett’s duologues.
 Harelik, donning a mustache and a Middle Eastern manner, masters Othman’s Sphinx-like code — a mix of ancient wisdom and controlling double-talk. Letscher effectively charts Hackett’s journey from rising architectural star to resigned factotum.

Christopher Barreca’s scenic design, David Kay Mickelson’s costumes and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting collude in giving the work a smooth contemporary finish. But the attractive, unobtrusive staging never detracts from the central focus of the leads.

“In a Garden” is no more electric than its title. But in its manicured form, it offers as much to take in as any well-tended botanical plot.  
--Charles McNulty

"In a Garden," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends March 28. $28 to $65. (714) 708-5555.  Running time: 2 hours

Photos: Matt Letscher (left) and Mark Harelik. Bottom: Harelik. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times