The characters in "Belgrade Trilogy" contemplate the past and look toward the future, so it's only appropriate that they do so on New Year's Eve. All three short plays in Scena Theatre's production take place on the stock-taking holiday, but Serbian playwright Biljana Srbljanovic fills each episode with pathos instead of celebration.
"Belgrade Trilogy," written in 1996, is haunted by the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the exile of its citizens. Each act introduces young Serbians who are trying to reestablish a life outside their native land -- in Prague, Sydney and Los Angeles. Though politics may have shaped these characters' circumstances, Srbljanovic layers their lives with enough slice-of-life drama to make "Belgrade Trilogy" compelling even without its historical context.
The production's most satisfying offering plays like an expatriate version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" New parents Sanja (Adrienne Nelson) and Milos (John Slone) have recently moved from Belgrade to Sydney and have invited another Serbian couple, Kaca (Ellie Nicoll) and Dule (Chris Davenport), to their apartment for New Year's Eve dinner. The episode is rife with stress: As their colicky baby cries, a visibly unhinged and unrested Sanja bickers with her husband, who slams down plates as he sets the table Sanja has neglected.
The arrival of their guests -- whom they knew in Belgrade but didn't socialize with -- is followed not by relaxation but by copious drinking, crass discussions of money and finally the revelation of a secret that further explains the friction.
All four actors play their roles vividly, infusing the get-together with backbiting tension even during the small talk.
"Belgrade's" Sydney installment is as much about domesticity, vice and passion as it is about the sometimes-tenuous connections between countrymen in a foreign land. Love and attraction are also themes in the works that bookend the production: In the opening play, two brothers, Kica (Slone) and Mica (Davenport), are singing and dancing in a bar in Prague, where the stern Kica is trying to protect his more simple-minded brother not only from the army he deserted but also from the truth about Ana, Mica's first love. The segment's highs and lows, as well as the two main characters, aren't terribly well developed, but Davenport's turn as the trusting, literal Mica enlivens the more humorous and touching moments.
Less successful, through no fault of the actors, is the last piece, in which two Belgrade transplants, Mara and Jovan, meet at a party in Los Angeles. Despite nuanced performances from Linda Murray and Dan Brick, their characters spend the whole time drunk and high -- and as realistic as their flirting or talk of New World aspirations may be, it's just irritating to have to listen to 30 minutes' worth of giggles and non sequiturs. A sudden, violent turn that reflects nationalist anger feels a bit forced, though its unsettling resolution nicely sets up a quietly gut-wrenching coda that's more elegant and nearly as effective in summing up the plight of Serbians as the works that come before it.
Belgrade Trilogy, by Biljana Srbljanovic. Directed by Robert McNamara. Set, Michael C. Stepowany; sound, David Crandall; costumes, Susanne Hylen; lighting, Denman C. Anderson. Approximately 90 minutes. Through May 15 at Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 703-684-7990.