…  It’s a very amusing play …

You will laugh a lot at Philip Roth in Khartoum — the laughter bursts out, as in a Roth novel, from marvelous, ironic observations of vivid contemporary characters and their interactions.  And it’s a joy to watch the cast’s delight in pulling the humor and emotion out of the well written dialogue.  And all of that’s available for the price of a movie, because the Labyrinth Theater sees the play as a work in progress.

What happens when four sophisticated, intelligent couples, sexually dissatisfied and with a few other contemporary stresses thrown in, get together for a party?  The play asks whether extreme sexual moments — exhibitionist nudity, explicit sexual description, bestiality, etc. — lead to resolution of significant life issues and, ultimately, to something this play calls “truth.”  In the course of the evening — ours and the characters’ — no-matter-what sexual honesty and truth are amalgamated to the point where one loses track of which is which — as in the game they play, Truth or Dare.

When the sexual track runs thin, the focus shifts to enthusiasm for travel to Khartoum to somehow do good there for others.  By the way, there’s never any question of Philip Roth going to Khartoum — only whether he’ll make it to the party.  Another leitmotiv is that the couple among the four at whose TriBeCa loft the party takes place have an autistic child, unseen in the next room though not unheard, who is loved but not accepted, and to the extent that there is a resolution to this play, it involves that child.

… that still has a way to go …

“We’re still experimenting … the actors have only rehearsed for two weeks…”, Labyrinth begins by explaining.  The actors work beautifully together, though, and everything went smoothly except for an unscripted coffee spill and the delayed appearance of a prop, both of which got big, warm laughs from the audience.  But the play still does have farther to go to locate its significance.  Does the sexual brouhaha create any change?  What was all that about Khartoum anyhow?  Did it effect anyone’s insight?  or emotions?  One character seems to undergo some emotional change but it seems pasted on.  Why should we believe in it?  And why does everyone else get left behind?

Philip Roth in Khartoum reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party in being about people trying to work out essential life issues at a party, and also of Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, because in spite of wit and distractions, no one has a very good time and ultimately they’re all stuck.  But it’s different from these because, at least so far, its premise about the resolving power of sex and/or honesty is unfulfilled, and all in all it drops us off near where we started.

Why’s Philip Roth in the title?  If you’re fascinated by his novels — the great earlier ones, not the recent skimpy throw-offs (see Indignation, noted here below) — you may wonder as I did whether to see the play looking for Roth.  The characterization of Roth the man is way off target, but the play is saturated with a Roth-resembling wit and reference, as well as a will to shock — that’s real, not just name dropping.  At certain moments, the play out-Roths Roth.  As for why Roth is “in Khartoum,” I still don’t know.

The perfect cast includes:  Amelia Cambell, Elizabeth Canavan, Alexander Chaplin, David Deblinger, Jamie Klasse, Michael Puzzo, Jenna Stern and Victor Williams.

Philip Roth in Khartoum is playing at the Public Theater on Layfayette Street in NYC through December 21.