News and opinion houses, in their desperate but necessary bid to grab readers, listeners or viewers, are slaves to exaggeration and hyperbole. Reporting on a gangwar shootout in Rockfort, the Saturday Gleaner screamed one word in blood-red block capitals: “RAMPAGE!” Points worthy of exclamation are lost in journalism riven with exclamation points. Nevertheless, superlatives have their place. And if you see five Jamaican plays in your short, embattled life, one of them has to be Trevor Rhone’s Two Can Play.
The script, which won Best Original Play on its 1982 debut, tells its story with such thunderous honesty that neither the passage of time nor Brian Heap’s mediocre restaging can diminish its impact. Conceptually, Two Can Play exists at a busy four-way intersection—the gridlocked point of contact between male and female gender roles, and the national identities of Jamaica and America.
It is the story of Jim and Gloria, a firmly middle-class couple in a war-torn section of 1970s Kingston. Their children are illegal immigrants in America, out of contact for fear of being deported. Except for Jim’s deathly ill (and unseen) father, they live alone in their modestly-appointed house. Troubles grow each day; gunshots rain each night. And Jim wants out—he wants to leave Jamaica, and he wants to leave now.
Their attempt to reach America fills the first act, and the aftermath the second. Along that journey, the ingrained rhythms of their relationship—who fixes dinner, where he goes on a Tuesday night, what she does in the bathroom—slowly fall out of step, until their interactions become the verbal equivalent of a horribly tone-deaf duet. Rhone captures, like a photographer, a time-lapse portrait of the Jamaican marriage in collapse, its foundations eroded by year upon year of slights and oversights, squashed into the two-hour confines of modern drama.
Brian Heap, either due to a lack of resources, a lack of imagination, or some combination thereof, neglects to use most of the rudiments of theatre to enhance Rhone’s tour de force. The set, intended to depict Jim and Gloria’s living quarters, is badly designed, scaled and arranged. All exits and entrances happen, drearily, on the same upstage plane. The size of the rooms, given their economic bracket, is improbably large. And for walls, Heap uses an ad hoc collection of flats, seemingly grabbed from some long-forgotten storeroom, lacking even a color scheme to smooth the illusion.
Lighting and sound design are similarly uninspired, conferring little sense of day or night, much less the emotional states of the characters. To understand what’s missing, imagine how unsatisfactory your car would be if it contained only the parts necessary to move from departure to destination. The overall impression, in Two Can Play, is that of walking in on rehearsal night. With a scheduled run of only six performances, such rough edges are unacceptable.
But you hardly notice those flaws, and maybe forget them entirely, once Alwyn Scott and Nadean Rawlins bring Jim and Gloria to life. Rawlins is obviously the more intuitive and nuanced actor, but Scott manages to hold his own as the archetypal husband. As Gloria, Rawlins finds the perpetually fatigued, frustrated equilibrium of her long-suffering housewife and allows the material to ratchet up her blood pressure, scene by scene, until the veins stand out in her neck. She plays each moment with surety, unafraid to look ugly or foolish in front of an audience.
Scott, however, remains obstructed by his awareness that he is acting, and so cannot find the emotional range needed for Jim, a man whose artifices are harshly stripped away throughout the play. His turn is competent, though unable to occupy the shadow of the original actor in the part—the late, great Charles Hyatt.
Trevor Rhone’s recent passing leaves Grace McGhie—the first Gloria—as the only remaining parent of Two Can Play. Although recent headlines indicate that Kingston is still a bullet-riddled city, and although the line outside the American embassy grows ever longer, she can perhaps smile that at least two of her spiritual children (Rawlins and Scott) want to stay—and play—at home.