Sometimes there’s as much terror as intrigue when you touch foreign soil. Even if you’re fluent in the native language—which Lowell, the main character in Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist, is not—there are customs and traditions to note, digest and honor. As played with keen insight and intelligent humor by Zak Orth, Lowell is surely a rising sultan of the financial world back at home. In the unnamed Eastern European country where Washburn’s play takes place, however, he’s merely an outsider.
But The Internationalist, which Ken Rus Schmoll directs with gentle dexterity, is too slippery to limit itself to telling the story of a midlevel corporate chieftain facing foreign faces. It’s so elusive that it ultimately asks more questions than it answers, and Washburn’s play is, at base, a meditation on language: How it acts as a communication barrier on the one hand, and how it can be, on the other hand, nothing more than a blip on the continuum of human understanding.
If you watch how Lowell interfaces with the colleagues at the brokerage he’s visiting, you can see each case in action. There’s sexy, cerebral Sara (Annie Parisse), the filing clerk who retrieves Lowell from the airport and with whom Lowell has an intense romantic fling. If the culinary traditions of this anonymous nation leave Lowell’s stomach empty, he’s more than fulfilled by the physical comforts she provides.
At the office, Lowell mixes with stock characters not unlike his Yankee brethren: smarmy dealmaker Nicol (Gibson Frazier), even-tempered Irene (Nina Hellman), wonkish James (Liam Craig), boss Simon (Ken Marks) and mercurial Paul (Marks again), whose trace British accent signals his own status as an outsider. When James begins relating a funny story, antennae spring up: humor and laughter are universally shared human qualities, yet they’re also culturally distinct. At the apex of the tale, just as he’s creeping toward the punch-line, English deserts him—James helplessly slips into the pseudo-Slavic gibberish Washburn invented for the play, leaving poor Lowell outside the locus once more.
If the play has any single theme, it’s alienation: the sense of not belonging even if you know intellectually that you do. To expand on this, Washburn creatively places Lowell in situations that amplify her point: strings of unintelligible glossolalia when Sara orders herself and Lowell a toxic local brew; the drone of a deadpan street whore (Hellman again—brilliantly), with a firm attitude about sealing the deal.
At least in this play, hardcore plot seems like a foreign idea to Washburn ; the closest she comes is when Simon instructs Lowell to go sightseeing. With his chic haircut and expressive features recalling the young John Ritter, Orth’s conveys Lowell’s disorientation and jetlag as he explores touristy sites that seem menacing and mystical. Upon venturing into a bar Sara mentioned earlier, he bumps into Paul, who’s apparently about to embezzle a fortune from the firm. In the theater, it’s a truism that you never introduce the presence of a gun unless you mean for a character to use it. Washburn ignores this truism when Paul removes a pistol from his valise and exits: another example of the playwright’s foreign dramatic policy.
Through Nov. 26. Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St. (betw. 4th Ave. & Irving Pl.), 212-353-0303; $55.