I hardly ever consult another critic’s review of a play before I’ve written my own, but when I noticed that Amelia Roper’s Zürich was enthusiastically received in its original production by a Brooklyn company called Colt Coeur, I just had to find out why. My experience of Steep Theatre’s current Chicago staging, directed by Brad DeFabo Akin, was anything but positive. I found it grim, tedious, reductive, contrived, pedantic, self-evident, and confrontational in petty ways. No, I didn’t care for it. The best I could think as I went over it in my head, considering a moment here, an exchange there, was how much better it would’ve played as a comedy.
Well, sure enough. In his review written six months ago, Ben Brantley of the New York Times called Zürich a comedy. A “dark” one, to be sure. And definitely “astringent.” But also funny. A New Yorker review gave special attention to the hilarity of the opening passage.
What’s happened, it seems, is that Akin has leeched away a good 99.6 percent of the play’s humor, turning what might be an angry, acid satire into a dull screed with a Young Jean Lee-like desire to indict its audience.
Zürich is a sort of political La Ronde involving a handful of guests staying on the 40th floor of a sleek hotel in the title Swiss city. Watching through floor-to-ceiling windows, as if observing from a drone hovering outside, we meet the guests and the particular form of Western perfidy they exemplify during a series of five vignettes that interrelate in one way or another and build toward a small apocalypse very much in the modern idiom.
In that first scene that so tickled the New Yorker critic, two nameless near strangers face the morning after their one-night stand, “He” feeling good enough to belt out “The Star-Spangled Banner” while standing half naked atop the bed, “She” warily trying strategy after strategy for getting him out of her room. The second scene pits an up-and-coming but ethically challenged African-American lawyer against a hotel housemaid with an agenda of her own. Three introduces us to two kids, an 11-year-old boy and his 13-year-old sister, who go through their dysfunctional parents’ luggage, finding things they don’t care to see, while waiting for said parents to return from the argument they’ve decided to take outside. Four gives us Fryda, a German Jew who makes phone call after frustrating phone call attempting to penetrate a Kafkaesque Swiss banking hierarchy as she searches for an account confiscated from her grandmother during the Holocaust. Finally, we visit with the oddest couple of the bunch: an elderly American lady and the twentysomething orderly who helped her escape an old people’s home.
Each interaction touches on—or, more accurately, whales on—some aspect of the capitalist patriarchy. The propositions are so bald they can be tagged. He and She: male sexual entitlement (a la Kavanaugh) and the threat of violence that underlies it. Lawyer and housemaid: how capital both corrupts the oppressed and pits them against one another. Fryda: the complicity of ostensibly respectable nations and institutions in monstrous crimes. And so on.
Roper has to ignore certain problems in order to make her points; the scene between the siblings, for instance, would be over in a second if there were only a TV in their room, as there is in practically every other hotel room in the civilized world. Yet that’s a minor annoyance inasmuch as the playwright is clearly on fire with indignation and potentially piercing in her wry wit.
Which is why she doesn’t deserve the treatment she gets here. Akin’s humor-stripping approach is evident right off the bat, in the morning-after sequence. The sight of an aggressively exuberant Jeff Kurysz waving his dick around as he warbles Francis Scott Key’s greatest hit makes for a promisingly antic start, but the ensuing duel between his He and Sasha Smith’s She goes dead due to an overzealous attempt to evoke the menace of He’s frat-boy moves at the expense of She’s agency. Normally a strong performer, Smith is reduced to second banana (read “victim”) status, even though the language of the script suggests She’s ability to hold her own. Another result: Kurysz’s blithe implacability becomes fascinating.
The biggest wit killer of all, though, is Akin’s idea for punctuating transitions from scene to scene. Roper’s stage directions specify a “bright white light” followed by a blackout; in a tragic misreading of the phrase “alienation device,” Akin focuses that light (actually, an array of lights) directly into the audience members’ eyes, like we’re convicts discovered scrambling over a prison wall. “Don’t laugh” the lights say—and, more importantly, “Don’t learn. You’re here to be punished.” By the time we get to the final moments, which could be a deep, dark hoot in the manner of the final scenes from Dr. Strangelove, all is lost. v