What are you willing to do to secure your dream job? That’s the question facing two budding filmmakers in Jen Silverman’s Spain, now appearing at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater. Set in 1936 during the civil war that pitted republicans against fascists and served as an overture to World War II, Spain touches issues of propaganda and artistic integrity in an age of mass media. It’s unfortunate that, with such rich material all around her, Silverman has opted to land on the least consequential aspect of this story — personal fulfillment.
It starts out promising enough: Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens (Andrew Burnap) is approached by Karl (Zachary James) to produce a documentary about the Spanish Civil War that will win American hearts and minds to the republican cause (and perhaps even make them sympathetic to international socialism). Joris has no delusions about whom Karl represents. He’s a Russian handler. Joris’s partner, Helen (Marin Ireland), knows this and seems to be better sourced within the Soviet sphere than he is — could she also be a spy? Joris tells us in his opening monologue, “Though my recent work has been, uh, a collaboration by necessity with the KGB — someday, I’ll make work that’s mine alone again.” But for now, he’ll get his foot in a door held open by his secret executive producer, Joe Stalin.
Joris and Helen recruit two respected writers — John Dos Passos (Erik Lochtefeld) and Ernest Hemingway (Danny Wolohan) — to work on the screenplay. Blissfully ignorant of the forces behind this film, Hemingway and (especially) Dos Passos threaten to transgress against the party line with their artistic vision. It is up to Joris and (especially) Helen to keep them on track and bring the film to the silver screen.
With the exception of Karl (if that even is his real name), these were real people who worked on a real film called The Spanish Earth. Entire books have been written about Hemingway and Dos Passos in Spain, an experience that led to their falling-out. Like George Orwell, Dos Passos became disillusioned with Communism after witnessing Soviet brutality in Spain. This is all fascinating stuff, and if you’re like me, you’ll find subsequent reading on the subject a lot more engrossing that the play itself.
This is in no way meant to impugn the production, which Tyne Rafaeli masterfully directs as a noirish spy thriller. Characters stand in interrogational boxes of saturated light (by Jen Schriever) wearing a blood-red blouse or a heavy trench coat (costumes by Alejo Vietti). Dane Laffrey’s set is deceptively simple, with scenes emerging from the void. We’re never quite sure where we stand or whom to trust.
Physically imposing and mostly silent, James has a particularly unsettling presence, his face often obscured by shadows and a cloud of cigarette smoke. When he does open his mouth, out pours a powerful operatic baritone that will send chills down your spine (arresting original music by Daniel Kluger).
Lochtefeld and Wolohan both deliver solid performances as the two writers, even though the latter doesn’t have much to work with in Silverman’s (not unmerited) depiction of Hemingway as a macho-man buffoon. Burnap’s Joris is similarly shallow, and we watch in disbelief as he fills a blackboard during a brainstorm meeting with words like “tapas” and “Rioja.”
Only Ireland seems to fully inhabit this play, deepening the story with a full spectrum of emotions. Around the men she’s a steamroller, prepared to flatten all nuance if the resulting road leads to career success. But an air of sadness envelops her in private moments, as if she too cannot believe where she’s ended up. She’s no Lady Macbeth, goading a male partner into despicable acts of ambitions. She’s the Thane of Glamis herself, stepped in blood so far that returning to safety would be as tedious as wading forward.
Ireland’s strikingly modern presence, her unmistakably meritocratic angst, instantly makes us consider the elite rat race that exists around prestige careers — especially in the arts, where there is one available position for every hundred aspirants. In such an environment, there’s a clear incentive to pad resumes and substitute the truth for my truth.
Helen peers out at the audience and asks, “Can a false story be so good that it does something true? Or are we just telling lies that will travel down the decades until we’re in a future built on those lies? And what does that future look like?” It’s a great line on which to end a play. If only Silverman had.
The final scene projects our characters forward to an airless conference room in an Internet troll factory (James’s lingering Russian accent suggests it’s the Internet Research Agency). The effect is like a dramaturgical frying pan to the face. By drawing a big red arrow from the 1930s to our own time, Silverman both insults the intelligence of her audience (we know what that future looks like, because we live here) and undermines the intoxicating air of intrigue that Rafaeli, the designers, and the cast worked so hard to create over the previous 80 minutes.
Even then, the actors heroically trudge on, letting us know exactly how they feel about the final frontier of artistic expression — memes. In their deep frowns and downcast eyes is a lesson for any artist lucky enough to be able to create work that doesn’t push the agenda of a larger power, be it government, political party, or corporation: Don’t waste that rare opportunity creating your own dull propaganda.