One minute they’re a happy family, the next he has disappeared without a trace, Gone Girl style. Stephen Fife and Ralph Pezzullo’s world premiere of The American Wife takes inspiration from politically charged thrillers such as Zero Dark Thirty or Homeland and, it seems, is dreaming to rival their success one day. At least that is the impression that comes across with such ambitious writing matched only by a staggering number of scene and location changes. America to Afghanistan to Egypt to who knows where else – a call to arms for location scouts everywhere. James Kemp directs a play of such velocity it leaves its audience queasy and travel sick.
Karen Ruiz (Julia Eringer) embodies the spirit of The American Wife, a young, ambitious woman with a seemingly perfect life. Doting husband and the perfect family unit, she is very much the head of the household and (one would imagine) in charge in whatever her professional field might be as well. By contrast, husband Eduardo Ruiz (Vidal Sancho) can’t even negotiate a house move, but never fear because superwoman Karen steps in and with a quick phonecall has the new landlord eating out the palm of her hand.
Eringer plays the protagonist with confidence and a no-nonsense attitude, Sancho the hapless, hopeless ball and chain. But when Eduardo goes missing, everything happens so fast that there isn’t time for the audience to let the events sink in. The emotional intensity is briskly swept away by another scene, a thrown away final line and another musical interlude. The aftertaste is confused and uneasy where it should be shocked and outraged, angered that a father has been arrested by a justice system that can use their Patriot Act as a scapegoat to hold potentially innocent people indefinitely and seemingly without rights.
A conscious choice by Kemp, the pace doesn’t abate as events unfold. Standing by her man with stubborn faithfulness, Karen doggedly follows a path across the world to prove her spouse’s innocence with only investigative journalist Mark Loomis (George Taylor) for help. Short, snappy scenes (at most 2 minutes long) are thrown together a lightning speed, a sound directorial choice but one that isn’t well executed at all here. The overall product isn’t slick or tight enough to hold up to its production team’s ambition. Max Blackman’s lighting suitably complements the blocking, drawing attention to pockets of action whilst set changes happen on the remainder of the stage. But even in conjunction with Zahra Mansouri’s moveable, corrugated plastic screens that attempt to compartmentalise and separate, there is always something going on in the periphery of the audience’s vision that distracts and disrupts the flow.
The main victims of such a fractured production are the actors themselves. Eringer and Taylor have enough time on stage but even as the two leads they are barely able to leave any impact. The first scene that permits its actors to breathe and explore the material sees a frosty exchange between Karen and American diplomat Amanda Bradley (Anne Wittman). The discussion is a wordless battle between two strong, determined women who aren’t prepared to back down. But other than a tender Skype conversation between mother and daughter Taylor (Lucia Henry Peragine) there are no further “scene-lets” that showcase the capability of this particular cast.
It is by no means a stretch of the imagination to picture The American Wife as a film instead of on stage; indeed the script almost seems to be written with the big screen as the ultimate goal. Just fantastical enough to be credible, the plot follows predictable twists and turns – people aren’t who they said they would be and what seems to be the enemy is in fact surreptitiously helping our heroine. Ultimately the concept is superficial and under-developed with none of the character development or background that a theatre audience craves.