'Gagarin Way' delivers a global message

CrimeCrime, Law and JusticeEntertainmentKidnappingFirearmsDefenseMichael Shannon

If you couldn't wrap your head around everything the anti-World Trade Organization protesters were actually protesting in Seattle a few years ago, get a load of Eddie and Gary, stars of the hottest Scottish grunge export since "Trainspotting."

The export is "Gagarin Way," playwright Gregory Burke's lesson in how not to wage an effective anti-globalist protest movement. Four years ago, this wry and craftsmanly item became the hit of the 2001 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It has since been translated into 19 languages beyond its native burr.

It is a comedy, quite, quite black, about a kidnapping gone quite, quite wrong. And it is making a lovely, nasty American debut by way of A Red Orchid Theatre.

The production is dominated but not taken hostage by Michael Shannon, fresh off his off-Broadway success in "Bug." Shannon plays Eddie, a factory worker in West Fife, Scotland. The city's coal mines have all been shuttered. The factory where he and a fellow employee, Gary (Guy Van Swearingen), make computer chips has been gobbled up by the Japanese.

In retaliation against their soggy lot in life, they have kidnapped one of the higher-ups (John Judd) as an act of anti-globalist terrorism. They don't want ransom money. They just want to kill their man, symbol of The Man, a handy multinational corporate villain. They long for "violence with a reason," as Eddie explains to Tom (Steve Schine), the hapless security guard who becomes an unwilling accomplice.

The central conceit in "Gagarin Way," which takes its title from a road in Fife, is that Burke's working-class Joes get it in their heads to make a grand geopolitical statement by the stupidest means possible. Eddie, who begins the play with a very funny dissection of the life and works of Jean-Paul Sartre, may be pure fantasy — a comically florid sociopath carrying a pistol, and a knife. Yet Burke, whose first full-length play this is, knows how to score more than one sort of laugh from the situation he creates.

Confining the action to a drab stockroom, the author riffs on everything from Marxism to Fife's radical roots to the necessity of phrasing a manifesto correctly. ("It's quite vague," says security guard Tom, scanning a piece of paper. "It's really vague.") The banter recalls the best of what Quentin Tarantino served up between killings in "Pulp Fiction": The gleefully improbable musings of underlings trying to hone their arguments, better themselves, do something to quell the boredom. Playwright Burke has said he simply followed the advice of Irish playwright and substantial drinker Brendan Behan, which was to "get them laughing and then stop them laughing." The play's comic angst is at once a joke, and not a joke.

Much as she did with "Mr. Kolpert," a very different and equally interesting black comedy starring Shannon at A Red Orchid, director Karen Kessler shrewdly modulates the tensions between kidnapper and kidnappee, between those with a taste for blood and those not interested in spilling their own or anybody else's. Shannon delivers a wonderful performance, scary and funny and characterful. (Good dialect work, too, from everyone. The dialect coach is Eva Breneman.) Shannon and Van Swearingen act as if they've been acting together for years, which they have, yet they don't give in to a speck of hamming or unneeded teeth-gnashing. Schine is a terrific foil, and while on the excessively twitchy side, Judd's executive is an intriguingly combative creation.

This is a true pre-9/11 artifact: All the talk of terrorism and misdirected rage comes from another world. Yet with America wagging its finger in every direction but inward these days, it's a fortuitous time to see this Scottish export. Especially in such a tightly, smartly wound production.

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