'Barcelona': Theater Review

Michael Lamont
Betty Gilpin and Carlos Leal in 'Barcelona'
Exemplary direction and acting can't save this half-baked dramedy.
3/13/2016

Betty Gilpin ('Nurse Jackie') delivers a memorable turn opposite Carlos Leal in Bess Wohl's dramatic two-hander about an encounter between strangers in the Catalan capital.

A couple meets on a romantic Barcelona evening; she's an American tourist celebrating with friends, he's a somber Spaniard several years her senior. It began over drinks in a tapas bar where a shoe was thrown and a challenge posed. And as the couple arrives at his apartment at the start of Barcelona, the audience can guess where things are going. In fact, things are already there as the pair crashes through the door mid-embrace, and has sex on a table in the shadows.

Yes, this two-hander begins with a bang, but while the backstories of Irene (Betty Gilpin) and Manuel (Carlos Leal) are engaging at first, compelling performances and witty dialogue are not enough to sustain a production limited by thin plotting and sparse themes.

The apartment where Manuel takes her is a ratty loft, except for the breathtaking skyline view dominated by the city’s most famous landmark, the Basilica Sagrada Familia. Drunk and loquacious, Irene is a Denver real estate broker with modest goals and a narrow view of the world, the irresistible force to the immovable object, Manuel, who has no interest in her beyond sex.

And although they drink and spar about messy U.S. gambits in the Middle East, Barcelona isn’t about Americans abroad so much as two very different people confronting twin spiritual crises. His stems from a terrorist attack, hers from a place she cannot name, although she can’t understand why her dream wedding, just two weeks away, has her fantasizing her plane will crash on the return flight.

"That I'm f—ed up is obvious," she explains about sleeping with a total stranger on the eve of her wedding. "I rely on other people not sinking to my level." Such an amusing self-admission is characteristic of Irene, and actor/playwright Bess Wohl’s marvelous concoction of girlish charm and womanly despair runs the gamut from giddy drunkenness to mortal terror.

Best known as Dr. Carrie Roman on Nurse Jackie, Gilpin is utterly convincing in her staggered articulation and manic movements, deftly nailing the familiar facade of a hard-partying, little-girl-lost. But there's something else about her, hidden in a heart she calls a crazy puppy clinging to her ribs. The audience sizes her up at a glance, only to learn, inevitably, that there's more to her than meets the eye.

What might have been a one-person show centered on Irene is instead a one-and-a-half person show in that Manuel is all but abandoned by the playwright, leaving the stoical Leal to prop up his portion of the production. All we know of his character is that he hates Americans, whom he blames for his daughter's death in the 2004 attack on Madrid, but he likes wine and opera.

So yeah, it's a little weird that a grieving father would bring a one-night stand to his deceased daughter's apartment, at least weirder than blaming the U.S. for her death. And having gotten what he wanted from Irene, whom he finds intolerable, why hasn't he thrown her out yet? You could argue that real life is full of people with irrational motives. Good drama, however, is not.

Such inconsistencies run rampant in Barcelona. In a spontaneous fit, Irene dumps a glass of wine over her head, necessitating a wardrobe change that cues exposition about Manuel's daughter. The problem is Irene's action seems to occur only to get her out of one dress and into another. Similarly, later on when she's convinced Manuel means to murder her despite the fact he presents no threat, her resulting hysteria has no purpose beyond goosing the show’s often sluggish pacing.

Director Trip Cullman has found in Gilpin a leading lady on whom he can anchor this new play, despite its shortcomings. His work with the actors is studied yet appears effortless, stumbling only when the material stumbles.

As dawn breaks, the Sagrada Familia looms in the background, still under construction after 134 years. Irene sees it as a symbol of perseverance, like the two of them, growing and ever-changing. That's nice. But what isn't ever-changing? And who amongst us doesn't persevere as best we can? You could argue that's what makes the metaphor relatable, but its breadth only dilutes its acumen.

Clocking in at a long 80 minutes, Barcelona still feels more like an etude than a fully realized theatrical piece. Wohl, who drew raves last year in New York for Small Mouth Sounds and Pretty Filthy, is both the hero and the culprit here. She has gathered a consummate team in director Cullman and his cast to showcase her considerable writing talent. But Barcelona, like the Gaudi basilica, still feels like a work in progress.

Venue: The Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles
Cast: Betty Gilpin, Carlos Leal
Director: Trip Cullman
Playwright: Bess Wohl
Set designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Lah Katznelson
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: Vincent Olivieri
Presented by the Geffen Playhouse

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