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Review

Words are bombs in 'The Engine of Our Ruin,' a comedy of diplomacy

As founders and artistic producers of the Victory Theatre Center in Burbank, Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny have been plying their theatrical trade for some 36 years and counting. In the Victory’s present production of Jason Wells’ “The Engine of Our Ruin,” the fates smile, the stars align and those decades of dedication come to full fruition.

The action is set in an unspecified Middle Eastern country where Charles (engagingly uptight Tim Ryan Meinelschmidt), a blue-blooded philanthropist and private U.S. citizen, has been dispatched on a diplomatic mission to suss out the tractability of the country's oppressive dictator. When Charles meets with foreign minister Haroum (hilariously overbearing Brian Abraham), female translator Razi (well-cast Zehra Fazal), an ardent feminist with a reformist agenda, deliberately mistranslates the exchanges, sparking outrage, confusion — and eventually, a full-on military coup.

One wouldn’t expect a play about the clash between Western and Middle Eastern cultures to be a comic romp, but Wells’ lunatic take is as intellectually provocative as it is side-splitting, and Gobetti’s crisp staging keeps the belly laughs coming.

Scenic designer Evan Bartoletti's sumptuous hotel suite provides the ideal milieu for the performers to romp. The cast, which includes Ryan P. Shrime, Shannon McManus, Spencer Rowe and Kimberly Alexander, handles Wells’ deft dialectics with virtuosic comic timing. Standouts include Gregory Hoyt as a naif diplomatic assistant who is more stoned than savvy, and Steve Hofvendahl, who steals scenes as a cynical government fixer whose impassioned diatribes will leave you roaring.

For those who doubt the power of words, “Ruin” illustrates the sheer difficulty of human communication in this finely communicated play, which establishes Wells as a writer of the first rank. Politically astute and sophisticated, “Ruin” will level you with laughter.

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“The Engine of Our Ruin,” Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 26. $24-$34. (818) 841-5421, TheVictoryTheatreCenter.org. Running time:  2 hours.

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