“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.
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.
Los Angeles Times photographers document the year in arts and culture.(Los Angeles Times)
When the Mariinsky Ballet performed “Cinderella” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oct. 8, even the wondrous Diana Vishneva as Cinderella couldn’t bring unity to the movement, but she danced with flawless, fearless authority. Read more >>(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins leaves a rehearsal of his play “Appropriate,” opening Oct. 4 at the Mark Taper Forum, to eat first with a reporter, then later with his agent and some unspecified Hollywood people, who presumably hope to lure him away from the field and city where he has experienced meteoric success in the last five years. Read more >>(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Kerstin Anderson takes charge of Maria von Trapp with a spirit so joyful, a physicality so lithe and coltish, and a soprano so flawlessly soaring that only Frau Schraeder, Capt. Von Trapp’s jilted fiancée (Teri Hansen), could possibly resist her charm. Read the Oct. 1 review >>(Los Angeles Times)
Soprano Abigail Fischer performs Oct. 7 in the opera “Songs from the Uproar” at REDCAT in Los Angeles.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Moisés Kaufman’s muscular revival of “Bent,” which played at the Mark Taper Forum, opening on July 26, renders what many had written off as a parochial drama about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany into a gripping tale of love, courage and identity. Read review >>(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Malaviki Sarukkai performing at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on July 19, 2015. Sarukkai is the best-known exponent of South Indian classical dance.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Bramwell Tovey conducts the L.A. Phil with pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl on July 14, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Argentine dancer Herman Cornejo performs in the West Coast premiere of “Tango y Yo” as part of the Latin portion of BalletNow.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Jake Shears plays Greta in Martin Sherman’s play “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through Aug. 23, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Dancers rehearse a one-night-only performance choregraphed by Raiford Rogers, one of L.A.'s most-noted choreographers. This year the dance will be to a new original score by Czech composer Zbynek Mateju.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley in Los Angeles on July 9, 2015.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Mia Sinclair Jenness, left, Mabel Tyler and Gabby Gutierrez alternate playing the title role in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre. The three are shown during a day at Santa Monica Pier on June 16, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
American Contemporary Ballet Company members Zsolt Banki and Cleo Magill perform a dance routine originally done by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This performance was presented as part of "Music + Dance: L.A.” on Friday, June 19, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Miguel, a Grammy-winning guitarist, producer, singer and lyricist, is photographed in San Pedro on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. His new album "Wildheart,” explores L.A.'s “weird mix of hope and desperation.”(Christina House / For The Times)
Los Angeles-born artist Mark Bradford is photographed in front of “The Next Hot Line.” This piece is part of his show “Scorched Earth,” installed at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, June 11, 2015.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles Opera concluded its season with “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Roberto Tagliavini as Figaro and Pretty Yende as Susanna, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
“Trinket,” a monumental installation by Newark-born, Chicago-based artist William Pope.L, features an American flag that is 16 feet tall and 45 feet long. The work is on display at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through June 28.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Alex Knox, from left, Carolyn Ratteray, Lynn Milgrim and Paige Lindsey White in “Pygmalion” in spring 2015 at the Pasadena Playhouse.(Mariah Tauger / For The Times)
On March 17, Google celebrated the addition of more than 5,000 images to its Google Street Art project with a launch party at the Container Yard in downtown Los Angeles.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Ric Salinas, left, Herbert Siguenza and Richard Montoya, of the three-man Latino theater group Culture Clash, brought their “Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival” to the Kirk Douglas Theatre to mark the group’s 30th anniversary. The play ran from Feb. 4 through March 1.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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.
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
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes