BWW REVIEWS: World Premiere 'IN A GARDEN' blooms at SCR (ends 03/28)

BWW REVIEWS: World Premiere 'IN A GARDEN' blooms at SCR (ends 03/28)

The relationship between the Western World and the Arab World has always been a tumultuous one. In Howard Korder's Edgerton Award-winning world premiere play IN A GARDEN (now performing at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa until March 28) two disparate individuals, each a member of those previously mentioned respective cultures, attempt to make a connection through art, modern popular movies, and the beauty of architecture-all the while achingly aware of their cultural differences. Highlighted by the extraordinary yin-and-yang performances by both of its male leads, IN A GARDEN is a consuming character study of two men dealing with hindered artistic sensibilities.

The play opens in 1989, where promising American architect Andrew Hackett (Matt Letscher) arrives in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Aqaat, by personal invitation of its Minister of Culture, Fawaz Othman (Mark Harelik). Excited, yet understandably apprehensive by his mysterious summons half a globe away, Hackett-whose only noteworthy footnote thus far was his inclusion in a coffee table book that featured rising "Under 40 years old" stars in the world of architecture-is disappointed to learn that his huge assignment turns out to be not some monumental structure to boost his notoriety, but rather a commission to design the Minister's summer home: a gazebo.

BWW REVIEWS: World Premiere 'IN A GARDEN' blooms at SCR (ends 03/28)

Hackett, who is in a business that is equal parts artistry and commerce, is repeatedly frustrated (over several years, in fact) by Othman's insistence in mentoring the young man into a global, structural superstar, only to continuously delay the project's progress. Either blaming their cultural miscommunications or a true revelation of Hackett's own trepidation, year after year, we observe the disheartened Westerner relinquish control to an intimidating man that enjoys nothing more than to discuss the latest American cinematic blockbuster. (In a funny introductory nod to the play's venue location, Othman reveals his adoration for American culture blossomed after spending some time being educated on our shores, and taking up once with a girlfriend in Laguna Beach). But Hackett presses on, hoping that Othman comes through in his promise to "build him" by being his personal on-call architect. So, we begin to question... who's using whom? And is there room for a "Minister of Culture" in a nation that places political, religious and geographic dominance high above artistic pursuits?

These intellectual, artistically-stimulating conversations (to either or both is debatable) continue for years, all taking place in Othman's estate while all around them the world is shifting and becoming more complicated. They discuss not only the joy in a popcorn flick but also the artistry of the great architects spanning the decades (those in-the-know of the de rigueur list of architectural greats will enjoy the mentioned names throughout the play). The only glimmer of an idea offered to Hackett by his sponsor for this seemingly non-starter of a project is to somehow incorporate the garden space he fondly reminisces about from his childhood-a space of beauty and peace amongst the blinding harshness of the desert landscape (and, as we know from history, the tragedies of conflict).

While the first half of the play feels over-long and as snail-paced as the machinations of Othman's own manipulations to extend his interactions with Hackett, the story really perks up by the second half, as more thematic layers are revealed in this multi-tiered narrative (and taking into consideration the reality of what the play's latter years meant in the global political climate). Sparring like a couple of seasoned actors that have shared the same theatrical war wounds, Harelik and Letscher are incredibly powerful in their respective roles. When Letscher's Hackett finally blows up after years of control, he is mesmerizing, revealing acting nuances of anger and pathos. Harelik, as he does so well in many of his TV character parts, disappears into the skin of Othman so convincingly, displaying equal amounts of pitiful loneliness and commanding leadership. With direction from David Warren and a simple, functional, yet beautiful set by Christopher Barreca (complete with a harem of attendants that seamlessly appear on stage to "clean up"), IN A GARDEN is stimulating, thought-provoking theater.

Grade: B

Photos by Henry DiRocco/SCR: Top: Mark Harelik (seated) and Matt Letscher.
Middle: Matt Letscher (left), Jarion Monroe and Mark Harelik.


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Howard Korder's IN A GARDEN at South Coast Repertory also stars Jarion Monroe as Aquaat dictator Najid, and Philip Vaden as U.S. Army Captain Prudhomme.

Tickets to IN A GARDEN can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. Performances continue through March 28. Ticket prices range from $20 to $65.

Discounts are available for full-time students, patrons 25 years of age and under, educators, seniors and groups of 10 or more. There will be an ASL-interpreted performance on Saturday, March 27, at 2 p.m.

POST-SHOW DISCUSSIONS: Tuesday, March 16 & Wednesday, March 17. Discuss the play with members of the In a Garden cast during free post-show discussions led by South Coast Repertory's literary team.

Inside the Season takes place on Saturday, March 20, 10:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. This event is a series of interactive classes that provide a comprehensive inside look at the theatrical production process. Each two-hour class features creative personnel from South Coast Repertory's current production. Inside the Season is offered on select Saturday mornings from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 each and can be purchased by calling the Box Office at (714) 708-5555, online at www.scr.org or by visiting the box office. (Tickets to IN A GARDEN are sold separately.)

South Coast Repertory is located at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa, at the Bristol Street/Avenue of the Arts exit off the San Diego (405) Freeway in the Folino Theater Center, part of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Parking is available off Anton Blvd. on Park Center Drive.

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