It’s a comment on the current state of contemporary Irish playwriting that Irish actors are increasingly deciding to write their own scripts. That’s the case with Tim Ruddy’s immensely powerful new drama The International, now playing at The Cell on West 23 Street. If his script is anything to go by here’s hoping that Irish actors will turn to the page as often as they turn to the stage.
Set during an unnamed but Bosnia like conflict in the early 1990's, where an inert UN peacekeeping force wholly fails to prevent a massacre, in one production Ruddy's drama restores a level of seriousness and intellectual engagement to the Irish theatre that has been missing for at least a decade.
The conflict is seen through the eyes of three very different observers from three different parts of the world. First we meet Irene (Carey Van Driest) a poor but happy young mother deeply involved in the hardscrabble life of her remote community. Irene has learned how to make ends meet but the encroaching conflict in the region is threatening the little peace she has known.
Next we meet Dave (Ted Schneider) an American artist who supplements his living by truck driving. Dave is a devoted father and husband but his plans for his career are increasingly falling short of the economic realities he's confronting.
Finally Hans (Timothy Carter) is a Dutch soldier with the peacekeeping forces who has decided to serve for the wrong reasons, and who's world begins to crumble when he realizes how far his reality is from the dreams that once inspired him.
Each of Ruddy's characters inhabit the space between dreams and reality with differing levels of unease, but The International is first and foremost a play about war and the seen and unseen violence it does to our spirits.
What's fascinating is the richly layered characterizations and the contrasts Ruddy draws between his isolated players. Dave, far from the front lines in America, beholds the suffering of others only as an opportunity to enrich himself. He places a bet on the UN forces inability to protect the huddled villagers from the extermination force of Rambo like militias that have them under siege.
Meanwhile Hans is appalled by the chain of bureaucracy that has tied the peacekeepers hands, as a modern day holocaust looks likely to unfold under his nose. Everything he believed in from justice to international law becomes an absurdity as men, women and children fall to snipers guns.
Ruddy crafts his play with a surety that is remarkable. The contrasts and parallels he draws between the three players make his drama take flight from he opening moments. This is passionate and engaged work, from a script that asks increasingly hard questions both of the audience and of itself.
It also highlights how little work at this level of seriousness has actually been going in Ireland over the last decade, where sardonic plays about alienated outsiders have instead been a staple fare of contemporary Irish drama.
Ruddy reminds us that before we had the demagogic pantomimes of Irish life that are the fashion at the moment, we had brilliant and subtle work by writers like Brian Friel and Tom Murphy, echoes of both I found at work in this searing drama.
Ruddy’s play does what great theatre should, it takes a complex experience and makes sense out of it, and it takes some positions but lets the audience decide for themselves. It’s not prescriptive, it lays contrasting versions in front of us, but it absolutely refuses to let anyone off the hook.
You can lose your humanity in an hour, the play tells us, and then struggle for the rest of your life to restore it. That can happen to individuals and nations too. It’s no surprise an Irish playwright would be particularly attentive to that idea, but Ruddy far surpasses any expectation you may have of him. The International is the most philosophically engaging and accomplished Irish drama I have seen in years. It’s a work of passion and intellect that in an instant dismisses the late 90’s era snark-fest writers have won the most popular acclaim. This is the kind of play that Irish audiences have been waiting for. It’s the one an Irish actor had to create.
The International is now playing through May 4 at The Cell, 338 West 23 Street. For tickets call (646) 861-2253.
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