Serendipity Theatre Company

at the Athenaeum Theatre

The past is not dead. It is not even past. –William Faulkner

Few wars have been as mystifying to Americans as the ones that dismembered Yugoslavia during the 1990s. We don’t have to think very hard to figure out Iraq, Afghanistan, or Israel: religious fanaticism notwithstanding, they’re all comprehensible in terms of familiar geopolitical motivators like energy, land, and security. Even the horrific convulsions of African states often refer back to oil or diamonds. But Yugoslavia? It just seemed to come apart–spitting out eccentric little entities called Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia that promptly began to attack one another with a staggering belligerence. In their most bewilderingly vicious phase, some of these entities resorted to genocide: on the day I write this, a Serbian soldier is testifying at the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic, claiming that after the fall of Srebrenica in 1995, about 7,500 Moslem Bosnians were “lined up in rows” and massacred with machine guns.

That experts kept saying the conflicts went back centuries only made them harder for us to understand. This was a fight about the past–a remote and arcane regional past at that. And Americans don’t do pasts. It’s what we came here specifically to avoid. Ours is the land where Archie Leach becomes Cary Grant. We can barely remember all the way back to the last episode of The Sopranos, and we’re proud of it. Looking at the former Yugoslavia, we simply couldn’t figure out why these folks would get so worked up over stuff that happened, like, ages ago.

Neil, the central character in Al Letizia’s Alcatraz, seems at first to be an exception to this rule. A Web designer newly relocated to San Francisco in the cyber-boom year of 1999, he appears to be positively fixated on the past in the form of Uva, a woman with whom he had a troubled but–at least from his point of view–profound romance back east. He makes a great deal of noise about how he hopes to convince her to join him in his new life. But it very quickly becomes evident that in fact he’s an American through and through–and his noise, like the famous tale told by an idiot, signifies nothing. For him Uva isn’t part of a vivid, lived experience; at best she’s an enthusiasm, a focus for free-floating nervous energy, a psychic hobby he can put away at any moment. And he does. Even as he continues to declare his love for Uva, Neil finds expensive solace with Candice, a gentlemen’s club whore; the Madonna role he assigns to a young Bosnian refugee, Sylvia.

As false as they are, Neil’s relationships with Candice and Sylvia aren’t really hypocritical. He’s essentially incapable of hypocrisy, his breathtaking centerlessness making it impossible for him to forswear himself. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there’s no him there. And so he’s able to approach these women with a sort of serial sincerity. Letizia very astutely demonstrates how Neil’s lack of a solid connection to the past makes him trivial, amoral, and infantile.

But then Sylvia has past enough for both of them. The ancient Balkan rivalries that Americans find so baffling are an intimate trauma for her. Though we never get the complete story, it’s clear that she’s been scarred to her core. Alcatraz shows what happens when her brooding tribal memory meets Neil’s blithe fecklessness.

Obviously what we’ve got here is a political allegory. Neil isn’t just an American but America; Sylvia, not just a Bosnian but–well, you name it: the Balkans, the Islamic world, southeast Asia. She’s the perennially inscrutable Other who meets what we like to think of as our enthusiasm, generosity, industry, and love with her own set of dark assumptions, which we couldn’t fathom even if we were aware of them. Neil’s got a jovial Russian sidekick, Igore, who tries to warn him off Sylvia–based, no doubt, on his own experience with inscrutable Others. But does Neil listen? Did Clinton? Might Dubya? Alcatraz comes at an all-too-apt historical moment, when the consequences of our disregard for the past–both our own and others’–are painfully evident in the rising American body count in Iraq, the land we were going to liberate. The sad irony is that, given the compulsive nature of that disregard, just about any historical moment since the end of World War II would be equally apt.

Letizia’s metaphorical intent may be global, but his characters are written like people. Though he allows Sylvia to step out of the action to tell her story, he does so in such a way as to avoid the sort of oafish expository speech in which characters Explain Everything; her soliloquies enrich her rather than sum her up. Meanwhile Neil’s self-confidence crashes convincingly as each of his good intentions blows up in his face, leaving him to sputter absurdly, “This is not me!” And despite the fact that Igore is initially played for crude laughs a la Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guy, he’s permitted to develop a Falstaffian dignity over time.

These delicacies of the script aren’t always as evident as they should be, however, under Adam Belcuore’s direction. While Nejla Wolff does a marvelous job of evoking Sylvia’s Bosnian speech and traumatized physicality, she’s also abrupt in a way that flattens out some of the character’s potential complexities. The effect is to make Sylvia appear to be about one-third cartoon. Since the same criticism applies to Todd Behrend’s portrayal of Neil, there might be an intention here that I couldn’t catch or that Belcuore couldn’t follow through on. In any event, this approach leaves an excellent two-thirds in each performance. And given Tanya Canaday’s wonderfully wry Candice, Tracie Louise Sellers’s acrid Uva, Christopher Ashmore’s ultimately endearing Igore, and Letizia’s sharp, well-wrought, interesting new script, Alcatraz works out to be a good 95 percent worth seeing.