by Carol Rocamora
Literary bio-plays come in all shapes and sizes – from Something Rotten!, the recent Broadway romp about Shakespeare, to The Judas Kiss, David Hare’s compelling study of Oscar Wilde (at BAM last spring with Rupert Everett).
And now we have Orwell in America, a surprising, captivating portrayal of one of the most provocative political writers of the 20th century.
Playwright Joe Sutton has devised an ingenious setting for this three-hander. He imagines what might have happened if the British author George Orwell (played by Jamie Horton) had gone on a book tour in America in the late 1940s to promote Animal Farm, his new political parable. Accompanying him is an attractive young publisher’s representative named Carlotta Morrison (Jeanna de Waal). The action shifts fluidly between hotel rooms, book-signing venues and lecture halls, where Orwell addresses his public (us) and takes questions from various audience members (all played by Casey Predovic).
But the heart of the play is the relationship that evolves between Carlotta and her obstreperous author. Though her job is to organize his appearances, it soon becomes one of keeping him focused on the subject at hand – namely, his book – rather than making political speeches. “You can’t tell an American audience you’re a socialist!” she exclaims, reminding Orwell that this is post-war America, a country caught in the grip of communist paranoia and a so-called “red scare.” “We are preoccupied with Russia,” Carlotta explains (a line which gets a laugh from today’s audience).
But the stubborn Orwell (who demands that she calls him Eric Blair, his real name) insists on delivering his message – namely, that socialism (an ideology he believes in fervently) and Stalinism are not the same thing. Despite Carlotta’s efforts, Orwell persists in his passionate rhetoric.
What emerges is a colorful portrayal of a complex man – self-assured, single-minded, flamboyant, temperamental, eccentric, and at the same time deeply lonely. Jamie Horton gives a delightful, virtuosic performance, engaging us with his humor and wit, while touching us with his neediness. (Orwell’s young wife had died, and Orwell has left his three-year old adopted son in the care of a governess. He begins the play by asking Carlotta to marry him – and ends it by reminding the audience that he’s eligible and still searching for a new wife and mother for his son.) Ultimately, Horton captures our hearts with his moving mixture of confidence and vulnerability.
Deftly directed by Peter Hackett, Orwell in America is more than a fascinating study of a leading literary figure. It’s also a touching romance (Orwell is in his late 40s, Carlotta is in her early 20s). Moreover, it’s about historical context – a glimpse into the nobility of the English people, who suffered unendurable hardships after World War II (ones that fed Orwell’s socialistic fervor). It’s also about post-war America, our privileged isolationism, and our inclination toward paranoia (Alger Hiss, Richard Nixon, The House on UnAmerican Activities, and the Hollywood 10 are all referenced in this play).
Above all, Orwell in America is about what inspires a writer. “Why does one person care where another doesn’t?” Carlotta persists in asking Orwell. “What makes you write the way you do? What moves you?”
Startled at first by these persistent inquiries, Sutton’s Orwell comes to a poignant self-discovery. “Writing makes me feel better,” he realizes. That admission is followed by another, final one, in this captivating, thought-provoking play. “I want to leave an impression,” says Orwell.
Thanks to playwright Sutton’s passion and Jamie Horton’s performance, Orwell certainly has left an impression on us – and a lasting one.
Orwell in America, by Joe Sutton, directed by Peter Hackett, at 59E59 Theaters until October 30.
Photo: Carol Rosegg