'The Internationalist' Checks Americans' Cultural Baggage

Foreign relations: Tonya Beckman Ross and Tyler Pierce in Anne Washburn's play about Americans' place in the world.
Foreign relations: Tonya Beckman Ross and Tyler Pierce in Anne Washburn's play about Americans' place in the world. (By Carol Pratt -- Studio Theatre)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"The Internationalist" is a clever comedy for the age of globalization. The notion that playwright Anne Washburn toys with in her diverting work at Studio Theatre has to do with Americans' sense of cultural superiority, and how quickly arrogance melts away when one is forced to play by the rules of an ever more confident rest-of-the-world.

Washburn's metier is language, and in this play she focuses on a foreign tongue that her main character, a good-looking young American businessman named Lowell, cannot make heads or tails of. Nor, for that matter, can we. The dramatist has invented a playfully convincing foreign language for "The Internationalist," one so foreign, in fact, that the "unidentified Eastern European country" in which the piece is set does not exist on any map.

The concept establishes the boundaries for an amusing challenge to both Tyler Pierce's Lowell and the audience. For long stretches, the other characters in the outlying corporate branch to which Lowell has been summarily dispatched speak in a complicated, unaccented gibberish that sounds as if it's a lost Indo-European language crossed with baby talk. Or maybe as if we're watching a spinoff of "The Office" in Esperanto.

"Hibit tora umkaforia loi nam tumf," goes a typical line. To which the reply is, "Dee staft tan imdia pimal-am doloc nong tac frahd." (Intermittingly, the workers revert to plain English.)

If this makes for a one-joke sort of evening, it's a well-handled one in director Kirk Jackson's enjoyable production. The actors playing the inscrutable office number-crunchers -- Jason Lott, Cameron McNary, James Konicek and Holly Twyford -- carry off with remarkable elan (and memorization skill) making this nonsense dialogue seem conversational.

The larger point of the ironically titled "The Internationalist" relates to the eye-opening aspect of Lowell's overseas journey. (Jackson concocts a smart mimed prologue of the dreary plight of the modern business traveler.) Along with the usual kinds of culture shock -- the local libations and delicacies trigger Lowell's gag reflex -- what the American encounters is an unanticipated sensation: his being superfluous. The troubleshooting for which Lowell has been sent to this outpost is never specified, but it's clear from the way the employees patronizingly engage him or just talk around him that his presence has not exactly been desperately awaited.

Casually, the locals let him know that they're not in awe of where he comes from, nor even particularly curious about a country that many Americans assume is an obsession for virtually everyone on the planet. An offhand remark by one of the workers, for example, about the way in which this Eastern European nation's health-care system allows no one to fall through the cracks, inserts the idea that this society thinks of itself as more advanced than ours. (It's as if, where America is concerned, the rest of the world is now solidly in the camp of the French.)

Washburn is not painting an idyllic view of this imaginary place. A large part of "The Internationalist" is devoted to the story of a lonely and underemployed member of the staff, Sara, who develops a crush on Lowell. Tonya Beckman Ross does nicely by the enigmatic Sara, playing her by turns as flirtatious and unattainable and then, finally, as soulfully needy. It feels as if the role of women has not evolved quite so vibrantly as this culture might advertise; one of the best scenes features the wittily protean Twyford as a leather-clad lady of the evening, making a loud and rather clumsy pitch for Lowell's patronage.

Set designer Debra Booth places "The Internationalist" on a sleekly modern set with office furniture that suggests cool Ikea efficiency. Illustrated panels slide into place to conjure streets, restaurants and bars. The muted business attire supplied by costume designer Jenny Mannis reinforces the idea of a working environment with an appreciation -- perhaps left over from earlier times -- for some level of conformity.

All the cast members manage to evoke credible types, even when uttering meaningless phrases. The nervous dynamism of McNary, Lott and Twyford helps sustain the energy of the indecipherable office exchanges. Konicek is doubly fine as an eccentrically standoffish manager and a snootily detached worker.

Pierce, too, proves to be exceedingly well cast. As with the anti-heroic character he played two years ago in Studio's "Fat Pig" -- a man who fell for, and then coldly cast aside, an overweight woman -- his Lowell exudes a boy-next-door kind of openness, as well as a capability for processing complex situations. He's well suited to the job of filtering for us the sense of dislocation at the heart of the play.

On a few occasions, one could wish that the actors might wring just a bit more emotion from the babble, as when, near the evening's end, Ross's Sara must, in her own language, make a powerful confession; it's in such challenging moments that "The Internationalist" is most imaginatively alive. Nevertheless, Studio's admirably lucid take on this intelligent play is an outcome that needs no translation.

The Internationalist, by Anne Washburn. Directed by Kirk Jackson. Lighting, Michael Giannitti; sound, Neil McFadden. About 2 hours. Through June 22 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit

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