A tour-de-force star turn by Betty Gilpin and a magnificent Carlos Leal are just two reasons not to miss Barcelona, Bess Wohl’s funny, thought-provoking, and ultimately quite moving look at European-American relations as seen from the starting-off point of a hot-and-heavy one-night stand.
It’s no mere figure of speech to say that Wohl’s comedy opens with a bang, Gilpin’s all-American Irene and Leal’s sexy Spaniard Manuel going at it like nobody’s business in the Madrid native’s Barcelona loft—and in so many positions even Kama Sutra could learn a thing or two.
It turns out that 30ish Irene has been dared by her fellow bachelorette-partying girlfriends to make a move on the 40something Spanish hunk they’ve spotted across a crowded bar, and hey, what happens in Barcelona stays in Barcelona, right?
Erotic heat can only last so long, however, especially when sex partners come from worlds as different as Irene’s and Manuel’s, and soon enough it becomes abundantly clear that there’s little love lost between the Spaniard and a land he holds responsible for pretty much everything that’s wrong in today’s world, from McDonalds to Paris Hilton to the brainless Hollywood blockbusters that trivialize the very real terrorist threat his countrymen face on a daily basis.
Not that Irene is going to take Manuel’s anti-American attacks lying down, not when they come from a man whose country remained neutral during World War II while her country fought—and continues to fight—for peace, freedom, and the American way. And yes, she may be nothing more than a Denver realtor, but it’s her ancestors and not his who had the guts and gumption to actually walk across a continent to start a new life out west.
The verbal fireworks come fast and furious as opposites move from initial attraction to friction to downright hostility. Manuel makes fun of Irene’s limited vocabulary (everything she sees is “cute”) and her cultural cluelessness (she recognizes Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” only because she heard it in A Room With A View) while Irene finds fault with the Spaniard’s Old World sense of “morality” (of course he finds it normal for a married man to have a mistress on the side) and Europe’s dependence upon America to defend freedom abroad. (Unlike Spain, we didn’t pull out of a war against an obvious “bad guy” like Saddam Hussein.)
Still, it doesn’t take long to figure out that playwright Wohl may have more up her sleeve than an opposites-attract, opposites-repel romcom, and for us to guess that Irene and Manuel may wind up revealing unexpected truths and unexpected depths, clues to which Wohl sprinkles along the way.
Barcelona is so sharply written, I’m guessing it would be a winner even on the printed page, though no mere reading could possibly match seeing it performed by actors as out-and-out brilliant at Gilpin and Leal are under Trip Cullman’s spot-on direction.
Gilpin is downright dazzling in the multitude of emotions she gets to explore, and though Manuel is the less showy role, Leal’s deliciously dry delivery (and his spot-on Madrileño accent) make him the perfect comedic-dramatic-romantic-sexual foil to Gilpin’s flashier work.
Manuel’s loft-with-a-view could not look more gorgeous than it does as rendered with supreme attention to detail by scenic designer Mark Wendland and as lit to striking perfection by Japhy Weideman, from moonlight to lamplight to candlelight to daylight in 90 real-time minutes. Vincent Olivieri’s diverse sound design and Leah Katznelson’s just-right costumes complete Barcelona’s stunning production design.
Peter Katona is fight director. Maggie Swing is production stage manager and Amy Ramsdell is assistant stage manager. Phyllis Schuringa, CSA, is casting director.
Geffen Playhouse artistic director Randall Arney deserves major props for finding Barcelona (this is only its first production since its 2012/13 World Premieres in West Virginia and Philadelphia) and even more so for its superb West Coast Premiere, one that opens 2016 at the Geffen on a high-flying note indeed.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
February 10, 2016
Photos: Michael Lamont