When we think only of ourselves
Two short plays by Anthony Minghella, performed in Venice, capture the mood of the 1980s — and perhaps today too.
Although the late Anthony Minghella is remembered primarily for his film direction and screenplays (“The English Patient,” “Cold Mountain”), he also had a deep affinity with the intimate theatrical traditions of character-based drama.
Pacific Resident Theatre offers a rare opportunity to appreciate Minghella’s playwriting prowess with a pair of little-known, one-act radio plays — “Cigarettes and Chocolate” and “Hang Up” — first broadcast over the BBC in the 1980s.
Honoring their origin as works intended to be heard, director Michael Peretzian (Minghella’s longtime friend and U.S. agent) employs an appropriately minimalist “staged reading” presentation, equipping the actors with little more than scripts on music stands and occasional ambient sound cues.
Set amid the Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher unfettered-free-market era, Minghella’s sharply observed portraits of self-indulgent young London urbanites bristle with quirky humanity, mordant wit and deep insight into everyday experience — closer in spirit to Minghella’s breakout film, “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” than to his later cinematic blockbusters.
No-frills production values notwithstanding, Peretzian and his first-rate ensemble of Pacific Resident company veterans render Minghella’s precisely inflected dialogue with polished authority — particularly when it comes to the failures of communication that figure prominently in both pieces.
“Hang Up,” the shorter, more narrowly focused leadin, depicts a faltering telephone conversation between a suspicious lover (Michael Balsley) and his girlfriend (Jeanette Driver, filling in for Molly Schaffer) as their relationship disintegrates in lack of trust.
“Cigarettes and Chocolate” depicts the confusion that results when a sociable young woman (Marwa Bernstein) abruptly decides to stop speaking or responding to others.
As the people close to her speculate obsessively about the reason for her silence, their bewildered guesses run a dizzying tonal gamut: Her appallingly caddish lover (Matt Letscher) thinks she discovered he’s been cheating on her with their married friend (Ursula Brooks); her amusing chatterbox bestie (Tania Getty) attributes the withdrawal to envy of her own impending childbirth; a milquetoast (Jaxon Duff Gwillim) with a crush pathetically backpedals from the love letter he thinks drove her away.
Their explanations share an insistence on making her decision all about themselves.
When the woman’s hauntingly poetic internal monologue links her release from the weight of words to social conscience, it’s an inconceivable notion for them.
Besides the fine performances, the striking thing about these plays is their prescient diagnosis of a peculiarly modern type of narcissism born in the absence of shared sacrifice, with no sense of being part of something greater than the pursuit of self-interest.
“CIGARETTES and Chocolate,” with Matt Letscher and Marwa Bernstein, is one of two radio plays at Pacific Resident Theatre.