Written for CultureWars.org.uk
Lowell has arrived at the airport of an unspecified eastern European country. He is an American. He is met at the airport by Sara. After some initial confusion establishing their status as colleagues she takes him to a restaurant and then on to a bar to sample some of the potent local spirits. The two talk, they get on. Sara is intelligent, sparky and fun. Lowell is charming, bright and handsome. The two go back to Sara's flat without even checking Lowell into his hotel room. Thus is the scene set for Anne Washburn's bittersweet comedy of international misunderstandings.
The Internationalist is a charming enough play, with some nice jokes and sections featuring characters talking in a totally made-up eastern European language - these are both neatly observed and brilliantly acted, especially so since there is no translation of what they are saying provided by the script. However, the story itself is lifted several notches higher by Natalie Abrahami's stylish direction coupled with the effect of Tom Scutt's elegant set, which manages to suggest the chic minimalism of anonymous European hotels and bars, and the basement rooms of archive files where it transpires Sara works. The set works brilliantly alongside Ben Pacey's beautifully realised lighting design. The play has also been given an enjoyable 40s jazz soundtrack lending the whole the atmosphere of a contemporary Cary Grant movie.
Alongside the modish design, Abrahami has added in some beautifully judged dance sequences (choreographed by Pedro Pires). Normally the sudden introduction of physical sequences into ostensibly straight plays feels a bit too much like a misplaced nod to trendy physical theatre, here the not-quite tango of Lowell and Sara -silhouetted against a bright white screen - is a perfect a way of staging their burgeoning romance; certainly far better than the fumbled pretend-sex scenes of naturalistic theatre.
If there's a downside here, it could be argued that despite the taut direction and incredibly detailed performances - Elliot Cowan's Lowell pretending to stand outside in the cold waiting for a taxi is the first time in ages that I've seen an actor on stage, indoors who has actually looked like they might be outdoors in the elements; the way he stands in relation to the imagined space is spot on - it is that the middle of the play does sag slightly. After a fascinating introduction and a clear setting up of the story's trajectory, there are a few scenes which seem to go nowhere very important, and with no great sense of urgency, but this is a minor gripe. It could be argued that the play is also largely inconsequential fluff, but in fact with a production this neat and acting this good, it hardly matters. What's more, it's intelligent, highly enjoyable fluff, and fluff which actually manages to score some well aimed points about Western attitudes to social status into the bargain.