'Unmentionables' Airs America's Dirty Laundry

Marni Penning, seated, with Charles H. Hyman, Dawn Ursula and Naomi Jacobson in Bruce Norris's scathing, if familiar, indictment of ugly Americanism. (By Stan Barouh -- Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 7, 2007

Leaning over the prostrate African man, the toned and blonded American woman wears a look of furrowed concern. The bloodied and beaten young man has been lying in the middle of her living room for some time, a fact that is causing her no small degree of dismay.

"Does he need to be on that carpet?" she inquires, crinkling her nose in "The Unmentionables," Bruce Norris's pleasingly knife-twisting satire about the foul odors that ugly Americanism continues to spray over the developing world.

Anchored by several keenly acidic portrayals -- especially those by Naomi Jacobson as the woman whose worries go more to home decor than humanitarianism, and John Livingstone Rolle as a terminally jaded African doctor -- the Woolly Mammoth production makes agreeable hay of the senses of moral and material superiority that Americans seem to pack along with their khakis and Kaopectate.

Playwright Norris, himself an actor, knows how deeply actors crave bravura roles, and here he doles out quite a few: Jacobson's Nancy, for instance, is a very funny compendium of every acquisitive, licentious and self-dramatizing gesture we recognize as features of a peculiar brand of American solipsism.

At times, Norris's impulses take him into hackneyed territory: The shrill portrait of a West African government hack, though well handled by Dawn Ursula, lapses into bombastic parody. And the ironic kicker he comes up with feels a tad predictable at the end of the slower second act. Still, the writer manages to keeps us afloat on his sardonic perception that as with colonial powers of the past, the gifts we bear often do more for us than for the recipients of our magnificent beneficence.

"The Unmentionables" takes place in an unidentified West African country -- the violent rival factions are cryptically named the PGED and the PPEG -- whose elite has been corrupted and its resources ruined by American business interests. After their school has been burned down, two fervid American missionaries (Tim Getman and Marni Penning) have been forced to take refuge in the sumptuous villa of wealthy Nancy and her businessman husband, Don. As played by the excellent Charles H. Hyman, Don is the sort of laid-back heartland capitalist who believes every economy on Earth could be nursed to health on a regimen of low-paying jobs and single-malt Scotch.

Inside the sand-colored walls of the villa, evoked meticulously by set designer James Kronzer, a debate plays out over what any of these people -- from pillagers like Don to faith-based do-gooders like Getman's aptly earnest Dave -- think they are doing here. Jacobson's Nancy is the most deliciously misplaced of the characters. She seems to have stepped into Africa directly from the petites department of Nordstrom. As Nancy natters on, recounting her mercy killing of an injured rodent or relating the nastier details of her boudoir proclivities, Jacobson adroitly conveys something at once risible and monstrous: the cold, hard core under Nancy's soft shell.

Norris, though, is as antagonistic toward the missionaries as he is to the business types: It seems Dave's predecessor, one Father Tom, got his head cut off after talk circulated among the locals about his interest in little boys. Penning, meanwhile, gives a persuasive account of an actress who has relinquished a role on a hit TV show to volunteer in the jungle -- Angelina Jolie, are you listening? -- and of one who has deluded herself into imagining this African episode would just be another interesting part to play.

The dramatist's derisive tone is most entertainingly filtered through a character called the Doctor, an embittered physician on Don's payroll who finds solace in the pungent perfume of marijuana. Rolle, often seen in supporting parts at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, is a revelation in this juicy contemporary turn. As with the clowns of classical comedy, his Doctor wraps the tragic in the veneer of cynicism. We grasp the resentment he truly feels when he says of America's need to feel it is a bighearted provider: "This is the same thing people have been promising us for the last 500 years."

The arguments do on occasion feel as if they, too, are some of the same things we've heard before about Americans' adventurism. But director Pam MacKinnon's stylish production (with a worthy assist from costume designer Helen Q. Huang) allows a scorn-ridden picture of cultural hegemony to seem meaningful all over again.

When, in fact, an African character turns directly to the audience at the end of the show and exhorts us all to go home, you're made to feel like that stereotypical Yankee someone the world always wants to see the back of.

The Unmentionables, by Bruce Norris. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Lighting, Colin K. Bills; music and sound, Matthew M. Nielson; dialect coach, Barbara Papendorp. With Kofi Owusu, James J. Johnson, James Foster Jr. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Through Sept. 30 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit

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