In Jason Wells’ new political comedy, “The Engine of Our Ruin,” miscommunication in an unnamed Middle Eastern country turns a sensitive trade negotiation into a humorous morass of misguided idealism, manipulation, and one-upmanship.
Opening Friday as a world-premiere production at the Victory Theatre Center in Burbank, “Engine,” about a diplomatic mission gone dizzily awry, “is one of the most intelligent plays that we’ve had come through our system in a long time,” said Tom Ormeny, the Victory’s co-artistic director and co-founder.
“We’ve always been committed to try to do things that address the zeitgeist of what’s going on, and I think this play comes as close as we’ve come in a while.”
The disparate characters in “Engine” who are engaged in an escalation of misunderstandings include an interpreter with a potentially destabilizing agenda of her own, a hair-trigger Foreign Minister, a possible agent of the CIA, and a “fierce truth-teller,” who, according to Wells, is reminiscent of Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and his reputation “for coming into a room and really motivating people in a terrifying kind of way.”
Communication, and all the ways it can go awry, is the thread here. “Engine” took shape when Wells began thinking about the crucial need for communication in high stakes political situations, and how, “especially in this atmosphere of the last few election cycles, there’s been sort of this sense that if you even talk to people, you’re soft on whatever, which is insane,” he said, and contrary to “the whole basis of diplomacy.”
And even when people are speaking directly to each other, communication, Wells said, can be challenging — “even for those of us who speak the same language and come from similar cultures. When we send an email to one another it [can be] misinterpreted. Is it ironic, is it hostile? What did he mean by that?”
Misunderstandings and hostilities can occur, too, in the fact that “so much of our politics seems to be driven by gut feelings,” Wells observed, and in the hubris of thinking that “we have the answers to everything. In terms of our day-to-day lives, that is a simple failing, but in terms of national politics, it is potentially catastrophic.”
Wells, whose previous politically -minded plays, “Men of Tortuga” and “Perfect Mendacity” had their first outings at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, emphasizes that he isn’t trying to teach “anybody anything about politics.” The landscape of politics, however — local, national, international, or corporate — “is a good jumping off place for a lot of ideas,” he said, “and I do feel like there are a lot of underlying impulses in politics that are worthy of drama. And by drama,” he said dryly, “I also mean comedy.”
To avoid identifying the setting in “Engine” with a real locale, Wells doesn’t name the country, and he has given his characters names across a spectrum of regions in both the Middle East and in the Western world.
While long periods of binge-watching the news inform Wells as a playwright (“when I can’t take it anymore, I kind of drop out for awhile”), regardless of what inspires one of his plays, he said, “I try not to get too specific about what it’s about and how contemporary it is, because I want it to have a life beyond whatever’s in the headlines.”
That consideration extends to how the characters in “Engine” speak as they head toward seeming international disaster: only English is heard, but a back-and-forth switch between languages is established in the staging.
“When the Middle Easterners are talking among themselves,” said Maria Gobetti, the production’s director, “they are speaking perfect English, because they’re really talking in their own language. When they turn to talk to the Americans, they have an accent.
“It takes maybe four minutes for the audience to catch on to it,” she said, “and once they do, it’s a lot of fun.”
And the ability of the Victory cast — Brian Abraham, Ryan P. Shrime, Shannon Mcmanus, Zehra Fazal, Gregory Hoyt, Tim Meinelschmidt, Reggie Watkins, Steve Hofvendahl, and Kimberly Alexander — to deliver the play’s dueling conversational tracks and rapid-fire dialogue, Ormeny said, is “an absolute tour de force.”
Wells, meanwhile, is back in one of his “heavy news-watching phases” for his next project: a novel “about a culture of national secrecy, and how that invades the lives of normal people in ways that most of us never think about.”
What: “The Engine of Our Ruin”
Where: Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank
When: Runs 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 p.m. Sunday. Ends June 26.
More info: (818) 841-5422, thevictorytheatrecenter.org
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.