Playwright: Chris O'Connell. At: Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway. Phone: 773-224-2980; www.oracletheatre.org; $20. Runs through: June 21. Photo by Angela Glyda
This year-old play by British author Chris O'Connell seems as timely as the headlines: extraordinary rendition, hard questioning, torture and internments beyond public scrutiny or the law, all in the name of counter-terrorism. In O'Connell's play set in the near future, a private-enterprise police state called the Global Economic Alliance operates scores of facilities around the world where nameless thousands are held—some guilty but most not. Into this particular Camp Zero ( as they are called ) enter Alex, a translator, and Tom, a grunt guard. Striking up a friendship, they are horrified by what they see, by the typical bland face of torture and by the moral bankruptcy behind the policy. But how do they blow the whistle?
O'Connell's play pays homage—knowingly or not—to several sources. An early scene with Alex and Tom echoes Harold Pinter's hired assassins Gus and Ben in The Dumb Waiter. Still later, Zero offers a Sarah Kane slant with its in-your-face nihilistic violence; an homage to the extremely gifted and deeply disturbed British author who completed five brutally poetic plays before killing herself in 1999. Hey, if you're going to borrow influences, these are good ones ( although Kane's meteoric influence has waned in Europe even as America still is discovering her ) .
But along the way, Zero loses itself. The story all but disappears and the play becomes entirely character-driven as Alex confronts his superiors and secretly decides to write a spill-the-beans book. By midpoint there's no more character to be revealed and the play becomes repetitive. With its closed physical universe ( of chain link fence and concrete walls in James Ogden's design ) , neutral amorality and spiritual despair, Zero essentially is a work of Absurdism. Despite his obvious writing skills, O'Connell makes a mistake by introducing a dose of psychological realism that shatters the play's theatrical style and intellectual basis. Alex has a dialog with a prisoner who tells a perfectly believable tale—grounded in the real world—of why he became a bomb radical, thereby breaking the Absurdist conventions. More importantly, Alex's decisions now become influenced by unclean politics rather than by pure moral values. But Zero is not at all about politics. It's about morality and truth, and so it needs to remain. The prisoner must not become a real person.
Under Ben Fuchsen's direction, Carl Wisniewski and David Boren are first-rate as Alex and Tom. Their focused and energetic performances dominate and drive the performance, as they should. Boren alone speaks with an accent ( why? ) sporting an on-target British working-class dialect. Supporting work isn't up to their level, with Bob Chaudry experiencing particular opening night jitters as the commanding officer. As usual, Oracle expands its tiny stage with video technology ( Eric Van Tassell ) enhancing the work's psychological horrors and feeling of constriction.