Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist is a play of dislocation. It begins with Lowell, an American businessman, arriving in the airport of an unnamed, but vaguely European-feeling country, where he is met by Sara, a pretty young woman who works for his firm.
These opening scenes have the fizz of a romantic comedy. We first glimpse Sara before she picks him up, donning her new red shoes to a soundtrack of Regina Specktor. Then, after some initial confusion at the airport, she whisks him off for a drink, and assaults his delicate American taste buds with the local potent firewater. The music of 1940s plays intermittently and all feels familiar – the scenes exude an air of warmth and wit. But then Lowell arrives in the office the next morning and the production shifts subtly in tone, it starts to move in a new, darker direction.
The play’s main kick comes from the fact that Washburn’s characters all speak in a fictional foreign language of her own creation, so that even the most linguistically adept members of the audience will be in the same boat as Lowell. His colleagues switch back to English occasionally to placate Lowell, to patiently explain things to the monoglot American, but quite often they converse in this curiously plausible, though impenetrable tongue, leaving him and us lost and confused. It’s a lovely device, evoking the familiar, not always unpleasant, sensation of being out of one’s depth in a foreign country, unable to grasp the full implications of what is going on around you.
As Lowell’s jetlag kicks in, the play becomes increasingly more cryptic and tricky. Some files have gone missing it turns out and there is a crisis of some kind at the firm, though the details remain deliberately foggy. People start taking swipes at Americans abroad, and Lowell, over confident yet culturally ignorant, and having failed to even pick up a phrase book before his visit, does embody many of the characteristics of this breed. The slightly nightmareish quality of the piece is enhanced by Tom Scutt’s set design. The walls are lined with shelves stacked floor to ceiling with files, which stretch all the way out into the narrow auditorium.
The cast fully embrace the play’s idiosyncracies; Washburn’s strange language feels totally at home in their mouths. Elliot Cowan strikes just the right note as the endearingly adrift, and increasingly baffled, Lowell. Jennifer Higham as Sara is sweet and sympathetic, but not insipid, and Gary Shelford, as James, the member of the firm who is not quite as fluent in English as his colleagues, displays some spot on comic timing.
There are some beautiful, wonderfully executed moments in Natalie Abrahami’s production. The scene where Sara introduces Lowell to a typical drink of her country is quite brilliant. As is her later intimate confession to him, delivered in her own language, because people,” she explains, “are always more appealing when they are unintelligible. But these moments, inspired as they are, never quite add up into something cohesive. The overall effect is not quite as dazzling as it might be.
The production places the audience in the same position as Lowell, but, by also drawing the audience into Sara’s mind via some dreamlike, cinematic sequences, there is a division of sympathies that is hard to reconcile. And, once Washburn’s premise has been established the production loses a little of its impetus. While it remains a charming and witty thing, there are times where and, I concede, this is partly the point the audience are left as lost and unanchored as Lowell.