Northlight Theatre

Jeremy Lawrence’s play about the political upheaval in the U.S. and Poland in 1968 opened as U.S. bombs rained on Iraq and Scud missiles hit Israel. During intermission, at least one couple was listening to the news on the radio, and some people in the audience actually brought Walkmans.

Yet the war in the Middle East wasn’t exactly distracting; in its own way, it contributed to Uncommon Ground by making faraway struggles–whether in Iraq or Poland–seem closer to home. Partly because the play depends so much on external events for its story, rather than character development or conflict, the real drama only added to the theatrical drama.

The story in Uncommon Ground revolves around an affair between Alexsander Karpowicz (played by Donald Moffat) and a young American actress, Jenny, played by Anna Gunn. Karpowicz is introduced as a poet and the cultural attache for the Polish government. Jenny is pegged by one of the guests at the introductory dinner party as “an ingenue, a real ingenue,” a line delivered with a fair share of both astonishment and disdain. She responds by expressing her opposition to racial discrimination and the war in Vietnam.

We know two things right away: the affair, a gigantic metaphor for relations between the U.S. and Poland, is doomed–and it is doomed mostly because we idiotic, romantic Americans, represented by Jenny, don’t understand real politics, real change, real risks, real angst.

As it turns out, the real romantic is Karpowicz, who woos Jenny with a tale of Poland’s tumultuous history. Throughout the story, he’s self-righteous about his country and his political struggles. He refers to Americans as “a people obsessed with salvation when they have never suffered.”

This bit of dialogue betrays the playwright’s personal politics rather dramatically: 1968 was, after all, a critical year for one of this country’s most troubling and influential movements, the struggle for civil rights. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X suffered plenty, and articulated the very profound suffering of their people.

Lawrence doesn’t exactly ignore this, but he does dismiss it. During the dinner party scene, one of the guests mentions the civil rights movement in an effort to point out a real American angst, but another guest essentially says that civil rights is in a world all its own, separate from the rest of 1968’s political goings-on.

I left Uncommon Ground wondering if this was not Lawrence’s crucial mistake. The very axis of the script is its comparison between student unrest in Poland and student unrest in the U.S. By focusing on the white student riots at Berkeley and Columbia, the playwright, whose sympathies clearly lie with the Poles, relishes his opportunity to portray American students as spoiled and self-centered.

But is the comparison honest? I think not. From what I know and remember of 1968, the students revolting at the primarily white universities were trying to create a counterculture. In Warsaw the student rioters were trying to preserve culture, against what was perceived as Soviet suffocation. A more challenging–and more fair–comparison would have been to contrast Poland’s student revolts with those of black American students, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, whose efforts were precisely about preserving and enhancing their African American culture.

As it is, Lawrence’s play cheats: not only is the political premise askew, but the most telling, most compelling aspect of Karpowicz’s personality is deliberately withheld, not just from the other characters but from the audience itself. Karpowicz isn’t just an out-of-print poet, it turns out; he’s also a government censor, responsible for ruining the lives of several of his own friends.

By denying the audience this information the playwright manipulates us into giving Karpowicz a more sympathetic reading. It also allows Lawrence to let Karpowicz be self-righteous when in fact he is also guilty. Lawrence has spared himself the trouble of actually exploring the poet’s angst.

Moffat, who plays Karpowicz with a sad-eyed-puppy quality, carries the play on his back. He has so much integrity that you want desperately to believe in Karpowicz, even as the playwright gives you every reason not to. Gunn, in her first role at Northlight, is a solid, energetic match for Moffat. While sparks are hard to imagine between the two, warmth, respect, and even love are more than evident.

In the end, the relationoship between Karpowicz and Jenny falls apart for myriad reasons, most of them personal, and because Karpowicz is drawn back to Poland. This final return is awfully romantic: we see Karpowicz walking up a yellow ramp that can’t help but remind us of the yellow brick road, images of Solidarity’s flags projected behind him, the voices of Poland in our ears.

The dreamy quality of this scene seems incongruous with the vague realities that even we dumb Americans know about today’s Poland: Solidarity is fractured; Lech Walesa, who has no economic strategy and reigns with a tarnished image, was forced into a runoff during the presidential campaign. There are no heroes in today’s Poland, no easy answers. Yet here’s Karpowicz, striding off into the Solidarity sunset.

In spite of Karpowicz’s faith at the end, I left the Northlight not at all convinced of his commitment, or hopeful about political solutions of any kind.