The Chinese Room, by Michael West, is in its world premiere production at Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Nikos Stage. Featuring an excellent cast that includes Laila Robins and Brian F. O’Byrne, the play explores whether or not memory is ours to create and to sustain. Set in a future world, though not so distant that people and places, objects and references appear unlike where we are in our own time and space, Frank, the central character, is playing against time to help restore his wife’s failing grasp on reality and past memories. In this pursuit, he is challenged further because he is dealing with humanoids more than with people, like himself, who can separate strands of conversation and logic.
The first act is cleverly structured with the playwright dropping cues, verbal and visual, that lead us into the reality that the play’s characters are inhabiting. In this way, exposition is fed to us slowly and the mystery of the play generates a satisfying series of complex revelations. It is in the second act, however, that West loses his way. The first act set-up gets increasingly knotted and unnecessarily convoluted. Apart from one exceptionally clever piece of staging, which I assume is written into the script, the act stops and starts several times and becomes repetitive past its own best interests.
The ensemble is uniformly strong and compelling. Under the direction of James Macdonald, the pace is varied enough to allow the audience to follow most of the plot’s details and complexities. But the drive of the play doesn’t sustain the second act. And by the time that Frank is himself subjected to much of the trauma that others are forced to live with, there is no denying that the writer is still trying to find an ending.
It’s to the credit of the WTF that new works find their place in a season like this, to an audience clearly loyal to the company and to the artists who dedicate themselves to helping make it all work. The Chinese Room deserves its public showing and West deserves the opportunity to learn from this run what may help to strengthen future productions.
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