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When We Go Upon The Sea by Lee Blessing – Off Broadway Theater Review




picture - when we go upon the seaTheater Review

by Alexander Harrington 

published June 19, 2010 


When We Go Upon The Sea

now playing Off Broadway at 59E59

through July 3 


Lee Blessing’s When We Go upon the Sea fantasizes about George W. Bush awaiting a war crimes trial in The Hague.  It is easy to imagine the play without seeing it.  It will begin with some easy laughs about the former president’s intellect and use of English, and then he will be given an opportunity to articulate a hard-nosed realpolitik argument about brutality being necessary to protect citizens in a brutal world.  When We Go upon the Sea delivers the former:  there are jokes about Cheney having been the real power in the White House, and Bush initially does not know who the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian is, and then associates him with wall paper.  It is no surprise that the night I saw the play, the New York audience heartily and superciliously (in the play Bush cannot pronounce the word “supercilious”) guffaws at these trite pot shots.


picture - when we go upon the seaThe realpolitik argument is made, but it is made more obliquely than one would expect in what surprisingly turns out to be a surrealistic play.  Bush spends the night before surrendering himself to the court in a hotel being waited on by a Dutch valet named Piet, who provides Bush with Anna-Lisa, a prostitute, masseuse, and “relaxationist,” who turns out to be a refugee from a country that sounds like Bosnia.  Piet confesses that he could never see himself fighting, even in a just cause, because his father, who fought in the anti-Nazi resistance committed brutal acts.  Bush tersely affirms that Piet need not commit such savagery precisely because he (Bush) exists.  Later on Bush asserts that his actions had the support of the American people even when his poll numbers were at their lowest, because, regardless of what people said, there was no significant opposition: there were no demonstrations of noteworthy size, and he was not impeached for leading the country to war on possibly false pretenses, while Bill Clinton was impeached for perjuring himself about infidelity:  “pay attention to what people do, not what they say.”


This argument about the U.S. and, indeed, the whole Western public’s consent to the kinds of action Bush took is developed further, suggesting that the public actually enables people like Bush.  However, Blessing makes his points so symbolically and indirectly that the audience may not understand what he is getting at.  Despites Piet’s stated opposition to war, his challenging Bush about the numbers killed in Iraq, and his jokes about Cheney, he and Anna-Lisa devote themselves to giving pleasure to the rich and powerful men about to stand trial in The Hague.  They do so out of gratitude: pay attention to what they do, not what they say.  Piet and Anna-Lisa live in the hotel and never go outside.  If one gives it a little thought, Piet and Lisa are stand-ins for the Western public, who stay safe in the cocoon of wealthy, liberal democracies, protected from a wider world in which people live with war, rape, death, poverty and starvation on a daily basis.  This protection is provided by leaders who pursue amoral policies.


Deciphering this not terribly subtle symbolism requires, as I said, a little (if not much) thought, which I’m not sure everyone in the audience gave it.  Even if audience members do get Blessing’s point, it is presented so abstractly that they will not be shaken or challenged by it at all.  When We Go upon the Sea is not like Wallace Shawn’s monologue play The Fever, which makes explicit the fact that the comfort of us in the developed world requires the suffering of those in the developing world.  Neither does Blessing challenge his New York, liberal audience by allowing Bush cogent and specific arguments for the invasion of Iraq.


picture - when we go upon the seaThe symbolic conceit of the play is self-conscious and precious, as is the dialogue.  There are two instances in which Piet and Anna-Lisa go off on riffs of completing each other’s sentences.  These are irritatingly contrived.  Under the direction of Paul Meshejian, Conan McCarty as Bush and Peter Schmitz as Piet are polished but superficial, and McCarty is doing a caricature.  As Anna-Lisa, Kim Carson’s accent came across to me as lower-class and belied her status as an elite call girl; however this may be how someone from the Balkans who speaks English with only a slight accent sounds.


Meghan Jones has realistically represented an extremely comfortable but generic hotel suite.  The costumes by Rosemarie McClevy are elegant.  Thom Weaver beautifully represents the combination of electric lighting inside the hotel room and the light coming from the sea-view window at various hours of the night and morning.   Meshejian and sound designer Christopher Colucci have come up with a surreal and heavy-handed soundscape for scene transitions:  it combines snippets of “Hail to the Chief” and trumpets sounding cavalry charges with the sounds of helicopters, gunfire, and the sea (presumably outside the hotel window).


Ultimately, When We Go upon the Sea offers no insight into the mind or policies of George W. Bush.


alexanderharrington @


photos by Seth Rozin


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