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Photo: Matthew Murphy Review
Since thousands of us spend our evenings watching TCM, attending the opera or sitting through the latest revival of a revival of a revival of a classic Broadway musical, we really don’t need a reminder that some art is “timeless.” More sadly, while that’s the major point of Jen Silverman’s new play “Spain,” being presented at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre, this particular piece of “art” will likely be forgotten five minutes after you leave the theater.

An inelegant and often puzzling work, barely illuminated by Tyne Rafaeli’s awkward direction or the actual lighting by Jen Schriever on Dane Laffrey’s rather minimalist set, “Spain” does have one truly saving grace that may make the trip worthwhile for some viewers: the always wonderful Marin Ireland.

This consummate actress does what she can – and that’s an awful lot – to bring full dimensionality to the role of Helen, a frustrated American filmmaker working for the Stalinists. We meet her in New York City in 1936, when she is recruited along with her “boyfriend” and fellow filmmaker Yoris (a surprisingly bland Andrew Burnap) to make a propogandist movie about Spain – specifically how the country’s workers are being taken advantage of by the Fascists.

Yoris, who fancies himself a cineaste of a much higher order than he likely is, jumps at the assignment – not that he really has much choice – even though neither he nor Helen have ever visited that country. Perhaps the play’s liveliest scene is one where the pair, somewhat drunk, write everything they know about a Spain on a blackboard! (Some potent examples: cerveza, quesadillas, The Inquisition.)

Aware of their shortcomings, they recruit the American author John Dos Passos (a fine Erik Lochtefeld), a noted expert on the country – and one with an obvious crush on Helen. But his real purpose is to attract the attention of his “frenemy” Ernest Hemingway (a blustering Danny Wolohan), whom the pair suspect (rightly) will insist on writing the screenplay.

It's not a bad plot point, but Silverman gives way too much stage time and import to these supporting characters. Wolohan’s Hemingway is no different than the dozens of other cinematic and theatrical portrayals of the misogynistic, self-absorbed author. Meanwhile, I suspect at least half the audience has no idea who John Dos Passos was, which makes his presence seem a bit superfluous.

Worse yet, Silverman eventually presents one real opportunity for us to get emotionally involved in this mostly intellectual exercise – and blows it! Helen learns from her former Russian boyfriend Igor (who never speaks, but is seen in the silhouette of Zachary James, who plays the pair’s Russian handler Karl) that making the film could lead to more danger than not making it.

That threat makes Helen realize that although her relationship with Yoris was initially arranged by the Russians, it has developed into something real – and her instinct is now to protect Yoris and abandon filmmaking. But after just a tiny bit of chit-chat, this potentially dramatic situation is all-too-quickly resolved, even if Ireland does break your heart in just a matter of mere minutes.

As for the absurd jump-into-the-future coda, it does little more than hammer home the already overstated thesis of the play. If you can, close your eyes for these last few moments and dream of the paella you’ll get to eat once you land back on solid ground.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 11/30/2023
Closing 12/17/2023

Theatre Info
Tony Kiser Theatre
305 West 43rd Street
Neighborhood: West 40s
New York, NY 10036