- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2007

Did anyone else find Vanity Fair’s recent Africa issue edited by Bono a cringe-worthy nadir in journalistic unctuousness? It was hard to keep your coffee down while leafing through pages depicting civil unrest, disease and environmental chaos amid ads for diamonds, pink vodka and pricey couture.

This sort of American idealism is the topic of Bruce Norris‘ corrosively hilarious satire of our meddlesome ways, “The Unmentionables.” If this comedy had a slogan, it would be “Yankee, go home.”

“The Unmentionables,” directed with manic glee by Pam MacKinnon and featuring a uniformly superb cast, asserts that not only should we go home, but we never should have been in Africa in the first place. Our legacy in the fictional West African nation depicted in the play is one of corruption, exploitation and woefully misguided altruism.

Not even do-gooders who think they are in Africa to “make a difference” are let off the hook. Dave (Tim Getman, spot-on as someone whose faith has made him smug and humorless) is a Christian missionary operating a one-room schoolhouse. He believes he is fighting the good fight, when actually his proselytizing is largely unwelcome and resented by the people. In fact, his predecessor was hacked to death in the night.

Dave is joined in his grass-roots jingoism by Jane (Marni Penning, crisply conflicted), a TV star who wants “to do more” and leaves a successful show to live in a shack carpeted in goat dung. Suffering from the privileged-class malady fibromyalgia, Jane winds up under the care of a Doctor (John Livingstone Rolle, playful and compulsively watchable as the play’s laid-back conscience) in the spectacular villa of opportunistic businessman Don (Charles H. Hyman) and his chattering wife, Nancy (Naomi Jacobson). (James Kronzer’s set looks like a glossy spread in Martha Stewart Living.)



Amid Don’s birthday party, a possible kidnapping and a scene of torture, everyone’s good intentions and bad moves are exposed mercilessly. Some of the targets seem easy — Don’s fat-cat sense of entitlement, Dave’s blinding idealism and the galling irony of Jane’s celebrity selflessness, for example. Yet Mr. Norris is never content with just a caricature of the Ugly American. As portrayed with lovable restraint by Mr. Hyman, Don is a fascinating combination of ego and sensitivity. Similarly, as Nancy, Miss Jacobson has a way of making self-absorption hilarious and sometimes poignant. Dawn Ursula also shines as a finger-snapping, extravagantly arrogant government official.

“The Unmentionables” is leavened by boisterous, frenzied comedy and cathartic laughs as it revels in some juicily un-PC moments — the Doctor’s filthy joke and unapologetic use of marijuana for nontherapeutic purposes and Don and Jane’s uproarious confessional about their distaste for the odors and inconveniences of Third World life.

With potent wit and insight, “The Unmentionables” goes where Bono and Vanity Fair never would venture: questioning the motives of Americans working “for good” in Africa. Are we using our privileged status to bring about real change, or are we just relieving our guilt?

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WHAT: “The Unmentionables” by Bruce Norris

WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 30.

TICKETS: $32 to $52

PHONE: 202/393-3939

WEB SITE: www.woollymammoth.net

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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