(St. Petersburg, FL) May 26, 2018 – A political thriller must accomplish three essential goals in order to become a successful story, and each of these goals require equal attention: it must entertain, educate, and enlighten. This applies to literature, movies, and the theatre. The best cinematic examples of political thrillers that have maintained this delicate balance—both on the small and silver screens—include Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer series, “Homeland,” “House of Cards,” “The Americans,” and especially the film adaptations of John le Carre’ novels such as “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “The Constant Gardener,” “The Night Manager,” and most notably “A Most Wanted Man,” starring the late, but great Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final starring role.
When St. Petersburg’s American Stage announced the Florida debut of Andrea Lepcio’s “Strait of Gibraltar,” which was described as a “sexy romance turned thriller,” the idea of distilling those three essential ingredients into a political yarn for the stage seemed exciting. Surprisingly, the playwright focused on only one goal in her work: to enlighten. And by doing so, the story becomes more of a sermonizing polemic that has absolutely no entertainment value whatsoever. Not even a skilled cast and gifted director can salvage a poorly-written script by Andrea Lepcio.
At a New York party, Miriam (Jordan Mann) and Sameer (Joe Joseph) meet and fall in love. She’s a American Jew; he’s a Muslim from Morocco. Within two months, sparks fly and the fires of passion grow. However, the fires start to cool when Sameer asks Miriam to create a special savings account at the bank where she works—an account under her name, not his—in order for him to deposit earnings from his disposable telephone business. The reason for this request is he is living in the country illegally, and he wants to save enough money to transport his sister, Amina (Mari Vial-Golden), to the United States so she can marry her fiancée, Denise (Tarilabo Koripamo). When she agrees to help Sameer, both are arrested and experience interrogations under the Patriot Act.
The problems stemming from Lepcio’s script are twofold. The first problem is the structure of her dialogue. Recently, I have discussed a disturbing trend in playwriting that I labeled “Theatrical Texting,” meaning that when characters communicate with each other, the dialogue is limited to a brief 1-2 sentence per character exchange and the monologues must be kept at an absolute minimum of one (MAYBE two) throughout the entire play. From what I have been told by various playwrights and theatre artistic directors in Southern California and West Florida, the reason for this trend is due, in their opinions, to the short attention spans of 21st century audiences. The philosophy is this: by reducing the run times of newer plays, supposedly, the audiences are more satisfied with the results. This also applies to increased theatrical blocking. Gone are the days where characters can simply talk to each other while sitting down and having an intimate dinner or drink; they must be in constant motion, or the “action” of the story dies.
I do not know if this fast-food, drive-thru trend of playwriting is a new method that is being taught at MFA programs or if this is something that is organically being conjured in the theatre world. Regardless, this kind of communication on the stage feels more like “verbal texting” rather than realistic, in depth communication between three-dimensional characters. I had that same problem with American Stage’s “Sex with Strangers” by Laura Eason during its 2016/2017 season. As far as “Gibraltar” is concerned, the scenes that involve the two leads feel “texted” in, where the dialogue exchange is as short as four to five WORDS per character. It is as though Lepcio is trying to use the same kind of fractured dialogue that Samuel Beckett used in his works. But Beckett’s techniques apply to the Theatre of the Absurd, not a political thriller that is grounded in realism. By writing in this abbreviated style, Lepcio robs her characters’ chances of being three dimensional. Miriam and Sameer are not three dimensional; we know nothing about them. Miriam whines and Sameer is enigmatic. And it’s this kind of sloppy dialogue writing that dramatically diminishes the on-stage chemistry between Mann and Joseph, resulting in not only flat performances by the leads, but also the other actors in the production. Without that chemistry, we don’t care about them, their supporting co-stars, and the play’s outcome.
Another significant writing deficit is Lepcio’s ongoing desire to preach the political overtones and philosophies of the play. It feels less like dialogue spoken by characters and more like public speakers bellowing pronouncements at Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park. Examples include:
MIRIAM: But, moving the embassy to Jerusalem is such an inflammatory move that will cause more hate. Endless hate.
SAMEER: This, yes, is not wise.
MIRIAM: He (Sameer) should never have come. F*** this country.
This is not theatre; it’s being on a soap box, with a stage as the setting for the discourse. And what makes this story worse is the playwright’s characterization of the FBI agents who interrogate Sameer and Miriam. On both the page and the stage, the characters appear as though they are male and female versions of Snidely Whiplash; the only things missing from their portrayals are their symbolic mustaches to twist whenever they smirk and speak their lines.
When it comes to creating memorable antagonists, Lepcio should have taken a few lessons from John le Carre’. How do you create intriguing corrupt antagonists that work for the government of any country? You add complexity and depth. I am not talking about the same kind of PLOT complexity that le Carre uses; the play would be six hours long, and Lepcio doesn’t need to do that. I am talking about CHARACTER complexity where the FBI agents can generate both fascination and dread for the viewer. That is how you create a true political thriller, not a melodrama. And having characters spouting political mantras as though they were backwater evangelists, regardless if you are on the right or the left side on the political spectrum, is just a recipe for bad storytelling.
I have never read any of Andrea Lepcio’s other work, and considering her background and the accolades she has received, I would very much like to do so. However, this latest endeavor is so shockingly amateurish and creatively painful that not even the play’s smooth direction and creative set and technical design can save it from being one of the worst theatre-going experiences I have ever encountered in my many years as a professional theatre and film critic.
But this production does not ruin the overall season at American Stage. Its brilliant past productions, including my favorites “The Royale” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” have been masterful, and it is going to be interesting to see Joshua Harmon’s comedic “Bad Jews,” which will hopefully end the 2017/18 season with a bang.
Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, and playwright.
Strait of Gibraltar runs from May 23 – June 17, 2018
163 3rd St N.
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Photos by Kara Goldberg