"Barcelona," a wily two-character drama by Bess Wohl, never becomes the play you think it's going to become. The playwright stays one step ahead of theatergoers — not to trick them, but to hold out for deeper truth.
This Geffen Playhouse production, under the assured direction of Trip Cullman, stars Betty Gilpin (formerly of "Nurse Jackie") and Carlos Leal as a pair of strangers stumbling their way through a drunken pickup.
Coitus is the first order of business, and rarely has it been choreographed to such comically realistic effect. Only after climaxes have been reached and Irene stops laughing over her own uncharacteristically wild behavior, do we learn anything about the man and woman we've just observed, as Iago once delicately put it, making the beast with two backs.
Irene, an American from Denver, has been letting loose with her girlfriends on a bachelorette weekend getaway to Barcelona. She met Manuel, a Spaniard from Madrid, at the bar where she had been lapping up the cheap sangria they serve to Americans.
Her girlfriends dared her to talk to the sexy Antonio Banderas-ish guy checking her out, and before she knew it she was being whisked off to his apartment, one shoe lost and her panties dangling from her wrist like bait.
There's something strange about the apartment (poetically designed by Mark Wendland) that Manuel brings her to. He explains that this is just a place he uses when he's in Barcelona. But the loft, which has majestic night-sky views that take in Antoni Gaudí's Sagrada Família, the unfinished basilica that's one of the city's top tourist attractions, is cluttered with boxes. The sink in the bathroom is all rusty, wine is given when water is asked for, and there are signs that a young woman has been living there.
More unsettling for Irene, who has this nervous habit of calling everything she likes "cute," is the news that the building is uninhabited. "Tomorrow, they destroy it," Manuel tells her in halting English. "They make a, how do you say, shopping." Irene pieces together that a wrecking ball is scheduled to level the complex to make way for a mall.
Nothing so alarming in that, perhaps, but she does find it odd that Manuel hasn't finished packing. This background tension adds to her generalized anxiety — a woman alone with a mysterious man in a faraway city on a street she cannot even name, never mind spell. Her pocketbook keeps sounding a Beyoncé ringtone, meaning someone from back home is desperately trying to reach her.
To make matters worse, Manuel is upfront about his hatred of Americans. He told her this on the way to the apartment, which provoked her to throw her shoe at his head (which is how she lost it). But intoxication clouded her judgment, and now she's not sure whether to enjoy this unexpected dalliance or run screaming for her life.
Much of the conversation between Irene and Manuel highlights the differences between her American bull-in-a-china-shop manner and his European suavity. If this sounds like a recipe for clichés, Wohl suffuses the dialogue with trenchant detail and wit.
When Manuel tells her that she reminds him of Paris Hilton, Irene doesn't take it as a compliment. ("She's gross and she has like 10 STD's … and she's not even, like, popular anymore.") She'd rather be compared to Cameron Diaz, a distinction without a difference for Manuel, who sees them both as blond airheads, an attitude Irene finds shockingly uninformed.
"Cameron Diaz is really talented," she objects. "What? She's a comic genius, her timing is … impeccable."
"Barcelona" is difficult to summarize without spoiling. Wohl, whose play "Small Mouth Sounds" was lavished with praise last year in New York, has a knack for resisting the more obvious dramatic paths. New information compels abrupt shifts in direction. The play forces the audience on the same journey of discovery as the characters, who live up to cultural stereotypes only to explode them.
The situation may become freighted with more significance than it can comfortably carry. (The Sagrada Família is overworked as an existential symbol.) But the writing is so well observed that the few moments of dramatic strain toward the end don't detract from the accomplishment of this intelligent play. Wohl is a dramatist we will no doubt be hearing a lot more from in the future.
Cullman's production is precisely calibrated in its scenic layout (the lighting by Japhy Weideman is exquisite) and, most impressively, in its superlative acting. Gilpin and Leal make every moment not just real but subtly revealing.
It would be easy to find Irene insufferable. She's too loud and demanding and she doesn't always think through her remarks. There's also a noticeable crazy streak. But neither Wohl nor Gilpin underestimates her hidden resources.
Gilpin has a way of making us rethink first impressions. Dr. Carrie Roman, the sexually exploitative medical resident she played on "Nurse Jackie" went from being a comic caricature to an accomplished multidimensional woman by the end of the series. With every turn of the small-scale plot, Gilpin's portrayal of Irene similarly deepens.
Leal is, well, just about perfect as Manuel — paternalistic one minute, vulnerable the next. He can menace with an impatient glare and soothe with a gently rumbling word. His character's knee-jerk anti-Americanism is as shallow as the culture Irene too often typifies, but, like her, he sees more of his shortcomings than he lets on.
"Barcelona" brings together a man and woman with little in common but carnal desire and one too many glasses of Rioja. But long after they've put back on their clothes, they stand beside each other naked — and more alike than they might have imagined.
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 13.
Tickets: $32-$82 (subject to change)
Info: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com