Broadway review

This ‘Spain’ makes little sense as a destination

The Daily Beast

November 30, 2023

In the play “Spain” it is 1936, two filmmakers want to make a film about the Spanish Civil War. But their paymasters are the KGB. The good news: Ernest Hemingway is there to help.

It is 1936, and Joris Ivens (Andrew Burnap) and Helen (Marin Ireland) are passionate filmmakers on the payroll of the KGB. The charismatic friends who maybe kind of a couple too want to make a stirring Spanish Civil War epic, but their paymasters want Communist propaganda. That is the set-up for the rambling and unsatisfying play, Spain (Tony Kiser Theater, to Dec. 17), in which—quite honestly—not that much happens, except Joris and Helen care about each other, jest, talk and test each other, worry about what they are involved in, and occasionally get menaced, or are menaced by shadowy figures.

The play slips jerkily between comedy and drama, and finds strange spaces to accommodate dramatic renderings of John Dos Passos (Erik Lochtefeld) and Ernest Hemingway (Danny Wolohan), as the characters mull the meaning of Spain, politically and culturally, and much else as they try to plan the movie. Zachary James plays the shadowy Karl, Joris’ handler, who also sings like a dream.

In real life, Joris Ivens—who was married to French writer and filmmaker Marceline Loridan-Ivens—directed The Spanish Earth (1937), an anti-fascist film shot in Spain, written by Dos Passos and Hemingway, and narrated by Orson Welles.

The play’s excellent cast try their hardest to find the contours and content of their characters, but the writing remains opaque. The play starts zippily, with Joris the merrily disbelieving artist promised lots of money to make his preferred work of art. But, as it progresses (talking about the movie being planned, Spain, and more Spain) one is never convinced of the dilemmas facing Joris and Helen, or where their affiliations (political and otherwise) lie, their dual needs to make art, and their self-sabotaging of the future.

They simply don’t seem that conflicted, or in pursuit of anything urgent or meaningful. The play becomes a turgid Talking About Things exercise, around topics like culture, identity, art, and loyalty. With actors of this quality this persistent chin stroking can be occasionally illuminating and witty, but we never get a real sense of the characters of people because of the tension-free zone Spain descends into. Still, Hemingway gets a monologue, which is impressively bonkers with a dash of Elvis.

It’s not even clear where they are supposed to be (New York) on a stark stage that is attractively divided up into chic, stark, boxy sections. The evocative lighting and staging harkens back to the likes of The Maltese Falcon, but Spain’s heart isn’t in film noir, or spies, or polemics. It hops between genres and tones of earnestness and archness. Right at the end, to underscore its real point—about the use of disinformation persisting down the decades—it somersaults with a polemical hammer into the present day. Here, it makes sound points anyone who cares about the topic will already be extremely well-versed in.