It’s no surprise that American playwrights usually write plays set in America. It is a little surprising that three current off-Broadway plays by American playwrights are, in fact, set outside our borders. I wrote recently about Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic, set in Paris. Joining this are two very different off-Broadway offerings, Space Dogs and English.
Space Dogs (produced by the Manhattan Class Company) is set mostly in the Soviet Union during the cold war in the Fifties and Sixties. Nick Blaemire and Van Hughes co-wrote the show and comprise the cast. The presentation is loose and jokey, resorting to stuffed animals and accents out of Rocky and His Friends. But, underneath the rock music, the projections, the clowning and the puppetry, some serious themes percolate.
There are two leading characters. The human one is Sergei Korolev, an engineer picked by Soviet authorities to lead the Russian effort in space exploration. This high responsibility and honor went to him despite having barely escaped execution by Stalin in 1938. He lucked out and only served six years in a labor camp on a trumped-up charge of sabotage. (Stalin had a history of paranoia when it came to engineers. He thought if anyone was likely to overthrow him, it would be the engineers, so he disposed of or imprisoned a lot of them, until he reprieved the ones still alive to aid in World War II.) Korolev determined that the best way to test missiles was to use dogs as subjects. The dogs recruited were not laboratory-bred animals but homeless creatures who were presumed to have been toughened by their hard lives on the streets. The second leading character is one of these, a mutt named Laika. Laika’s mission was to help Soviet scientists determine if a living creature could survive being blasted into space. Unfortunately, once that was established, Laika’s usefulness was at an end. No provision was made for her safe return to the earth. I couldn’t help but see the parallel between Korolev and Laika – both valued only in terms of their usefulness to an authoritarian state.
Larger historical forces also loom over English by Sanaz Toossi (produced by the Atlantic Theater). Set in a classroom in Iran where English is being taught as a second language by Marjan, a woman who returned to Iran after years living in Manchester, England. She has four students, each with their own reason for studying. For one, the dive into English is made with enthusiasm, anticipating the range of expression that now will be open to her. For another, learning is a practical imperative, but it’s also a grudging surrender to what she sees as a culture that bullies others into acquiescence. Other ideas arise. Are you the same when speaking a second language? What is the gravitational pull of the nationality you were born into, and is it something you are moved to flee or embrace or, at different times, both?
For a work that is so intellectually alive, part of the accomplishment of Toossi’s script is that at no point do her characters feel as if they are primarily mouthpieces for her ideas. In a modestly-scaled play, she has written an epic.