Review: Fascinating BARCELONA at the Geffen

By: Feb. 16, 2016
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Barcelona/by Bess Wohl/directed by Trip Cullman/Geffen Playhouse/through March 13

I cannot remember when a play has touched me as strongly as the West Coast premiere of Barcelona by Bess Wohl, currently onstage at the Geffen through March 13. From the moment I entered the Gil Cates Theater and looked onstage at the attic apartment in Barcelona, with its dark, haunting, discombobulated appearance, I was thrillingly manipulated to examine it more fully... and I couldn't wait for the action of the play to begin.

When it did, on the darkly lit set, two people (Carlos Leal, Betty Gilpin) entered the room fumbling to get each other's clothes off and to get comfortable enough to 'get it on'. The scene reminded me somewhat of that infamous elevator scene in the film Fatal Attraction where Glenn Close surely gives Michael Douglas a run for his money. As it finishes, the girl (Gilpin) - her name isn't revealed until much later in the plot - laughs and professes to have never done this before. She refers to the man, obviously older than she, as Manolo, and he immediately interjects, correcting her... "Manuel." She is so drunk that she cannot remember his name, among other things. Little by little we learn that they were in a local bar and that she had been given a bachelorette party by some girl friends, and that she had eventually approached Manuel out of sexual curiosity. So, she picked him up. Her drunken condition worsens as she drinks Rioja wine with him, at his suggestion. We do not know who he is, why there was an attraction to him...and if she is going to be married, then why would she want to go to bed with him? Lying to herself, she suddenly blames him for not being more considerate of her when he realizes that she is a, and so the 90-minute cat and mouse game begins.

I love plays that keep you guessing from moment to moment. You are constantly kept in the dark about details, so you start jumping to conclusions, as I started to do. It becomes clear that Manuel hates Americans. Why? So, is he maybe going to kill her? I do not wish to spoil the rest of the plot for you, as you must see this play. I will only reveal that Irene is especially vulnerable about her fiance and that Manuel has lost someone close, making both characters in dire need of some TLC. Outside the window of the warehouse apartment is la Sagrada Familia, one of the most famous architectural cathedrals in Spain. It was never totally completed due to the passing of one of its architects, and so it has been since 1882 and still is, in a constant state of construction. The building where Manuel is living is about to be demolished...the next morning. Destruction...across the way, replenishment. This suits the condition of the characters in Barcelona as well. They are symbolic of this duality that is Barcelona. Important to mention as well that both Manuel and Irene are strangers to Barcelona; she from Denver, he from Madrid, and neither has ever visited la Sagrada Familia.

Another amazing feature of this play is the exposition of the characters' cultural identities, which are also at extreme odds. Manuel, hating Americans, cannot understand how Irene behaves. How she tends to lie, to forgive and forget, without a pang of a guilty conscience. She cannot follow his old style, traditional values of living, yet she is attracted to him. In his own way, he is equally drawn to her, like a magnet. But if I go further, I will give away too much detail.

Under director Trip Cullman's steady pacing and fluid staging both actors are miraculous to watch. They so connect without even knowing why or how. Leal makes Manuel mysterious, and so sexually appealing. Gilpin shows the crazed, ditzy side of Irene to the max, and as layer after layer of her personality is slowly revealed, we start to relate to her dilemma and understand her unpredictability.

Mark Wendland's set is a wonder, and Japhy Weldeman's lighting fantastic in creating and maintaining the nightmarish quality that matches the mood of the entire piece.

Go see Barcelona! You will not be disappointed. Its intrigue and brilliant character development place Bess Wohl at the top of her game as a playwright. One of the best plays of 2016 thus far!


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