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Steven Culp in "Two Rooms"

February - March 16, 1997

Jewel Box Theatre, North Hollywood, CA

Playwright by Lee Blessing
Directed by Nelson Handel

Reporter - Steven Culp
Michael Wells - Henry Woronicz
Laine Wells - Rose Portillo
U.S. Government - Iona Morris

(February 7, 1997, by Jana J. Monji)

'Two Rooms' Shows Struggle to Connect

"Two Rooms," Lee Blessing's drama about a couple separated by a stormy sea of political agendas, is given a lackluster presentation at the Jewel Box Theater.

The year is 1985. The husband Michael (Henry Woronicz) is being held hostage in Beirut while the wife Laine (Rose Portillo) waits for his safe release, caught between the U.S. government (Iona Morris) and the snooping media (Steven Culp). Hidden away, shackled and blindfolded, sporadically beaten by his captors, Michael dreams of his wife and freedom. Desperate to form some sort of connection with her beloved husband, the wife transforms her bedroom into a dark, cell-like prison.

Director Nelson Handel never captures a sense of urgency and instead shows hope beaten down only by time and bureaucracy. Morris, with her carefully enunciated words and nuanced glances, skitters between duty and morality. Culp's character occupies that hazy realm between opportunist and crusading reporter. Unfortunately, the chemistry between Portillo and Woronicz never rises above lukewarm.

Without a sympathetic couple or driving anxiety, this piece is reduced to dull denunciations of last decade's political faux pas in the Middle East.

"Two Rooms," Jewel Box Theatre, 10426 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Ends March 16. $22. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

(January 23, 1997, by T.H. McCulloh)

Two Rooms' Is Steeped in Politics, History
A decade after it was written, Lee Blessing's play about the wife of a Beirut hostage has gained added power, says the director.

Can a politically motivated play be meaningful to an audience 10 years later?

Director Nelson Handel, who is staging the L.A. premiere of Lee Blessing's "Two Rooms" at North Hollywood's Jewel Box Theatre, thinks the play's message is stronger today than when Blessing wrote it in the 1980s.

Handel was given the L.A. performing rights to the play by Blessing four or five years ago. He is glad, he said, that he hasn't been able to stage the work till now.

"It's a very potent and dynamic script," Handel said. "I kept pulling it out and reading it, and as the years went by I thought it became more resonant, and more relevant to our time."

The middle '80s was a time of fear and uncertainty, Handel said, when the Beirut hostage crisis was uppermost in the minds of the American public.

"Back then, it was a little close to the events, and it felt a little ripped from the headlines," he said. "The themes of the public and the private, how politics affect the individual, and the nature of individual action and political power have become more salient to our lives. The play has a scope now that it didn't have then."

The plot concerns a college professor named Laine Wells, whose husband is being held hostage in Beirut. Unable to maneuver the authorities to action, Wells moves into her husband's study, stripping it completely to approximate the cell he is in halfway around the world. It becomes two rooms, a hopeless prison and a center for her anger and frustration.

"Into this room," Handel said, "she invites two people. One is a liberal, crusading reporter who encourages her to tell her story to the public and to put pressure on the government. The other is a conservative member of the Reagan State Department, whose charge is to keep her quiet, to keep her from embarrassing herself and the government by complicating their negotiations. In this room they play out their little chess game."

In his cell, the husband speaks monologues in the form of love letters to his wife.

What attracted Handel to the play, he said, is that it looks at the political through the lens of the personal. On one side it's the story of a love torn apart. Onto this is grafted Blessing's exploration of power, how people create power in the world, and how power infects people.

"That's something that we all know something about," Handel said.

Handel is working with Rose Portillo, who plays Laine Wells. Both the director and actor are drawn to plays with political themes. Portillo was in the original Mark Taper Forum and Broadway productions of "Zoot Suit," and also starred in San Diego Repertory's West Coast premiere of "Death and the Maiden."

"There's such strong poetry in this piece, and there's enough distance from the actual events that the poetry can be heard now," Portillo said. "And there is the journey this woman takes in finding her own voice."

The play also affords a view of the consequences of politics on the lives of ordinary people--who get killed, get kidnapped, have their lives torn apart.

"This play," Handel said, "takes us inside those lives in a way that connects it to us personally."

Portillo expanded on Handel's statement. "We are reflections of each other, reflections of society in our homes, in our personal lives," she said. "This piece holds the mirror out there, so you can see how the personal is political, and the political is personal."

"Two Rooms," Jewel Box Theatre, 10426 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Ends March 9. $22. (213) 660-8587.

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