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Broken English

by Ralph Hammann on August 16, 2012

By Katori Hall, directed by May Adrales Williamstown Theatre Festival, through Aug. 19

In what is easily the most fascinating premise of many a theater season, Katori Hall brilliantly exploits a rare medical condition, Foreign Accent Syndrome, to deliver a brittle and affecting satire of race and class in America. Although it sounds like something from science fiction, the syndrome (of which there have been 60 reported cases in the world) occurs following a brain trauma and results in the victim speaking in what seems to be a foreign accent.

Hall’s protagonist is Eden Higgenbotham, one of the 1 percent, who lives a privileged life in New York City where her most difficult decisions involve deciding who should be allowed to live in her exclusive building. Surrounded by a staff of five minority members and her Korean personal assistant, hilariously played by the beautiful Greta Lee, Eden suffers a stroke, which leaves her unscathed with the exception of the fact that the WASP now speaks with a Jamaican accent. It’s a wonderful premise that takes a few cues from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion in positing that one’s way of speaking absolutely classifies one. Eden finds herself shunned by her class-conscious neighbor, banker and, especially, the effete salesman at her once-beloved Chanel store.

Tina Benko in Whaddabloodclot!!! at WTF

Thus begins an episodic adventure in which Eden does a reversal of Eliza Doolittle’s journey and travels from the upper crust of society into the gutter. In lesser hands this could have easily been a one-joke play, but Hall plays the joke to the hilt and then transforms it into a disarming morality play. It’s as if Shaw gets crossed with Dickens, in A Christmas Carol mode, with Eden’s Scrooge becoming humanized by her affliction, which brings her into contact with people she would never have previously met. The humor is black and takes no prisoners in much the manner of Christopher Durang, and like that great humorist, Hall gets away with it via a point of view that is essentially humanistic and good natured.

As she makes her voyage of self-discovery from Fifth Avenue to Harlem, Eden is a fish out of water until she happens into one of Hall’s most inspired scenes: Eden meets a group of Foreign Accent Syndromers Anonymous (including an Aussie-accented Latino and a macho jock caught in effeminate speech patterns) and finds her true voice.

The game cast of seven main actors assay 24 different accents, with most playing multiple roles in this swiftly moving comedy. As has been true with most everything at the WTF this year, the cast is uniformly excellent as they make brisk changes of costume, hairstyle and accent—and manage to remain human even when the action veers dangerously close to cartoonish in some of May Adrale’s direction. It’s an exhilarating balancing act.

As good as the ensemble is (with Lee, Brian Tyree Henry and Carolyn Michelle Smith being standouts), the show finally rests on the prodigious talents of Tina Benko, who is a genuine tour-de-force as Eden. Benko’s Jamaican accent is a technical marvel that is sustained for nearly 90 minutes on the Nikos Stage, and the effect of hearing the Jamaican accent (and then patois) issue from the blond-tressed, fine-boned sophisticate is hysterical. Even after we become accustomed to it, Benko manages to catch us off guard and send us into bursts of laughter well into the play.

Then she does something more. It is not an easy task to change a character, who is initially a subject of derision and then a vehicle of incongruous hilarity, into someone we end up caring about. And this is what Benko does as she deftly reveals Eden’s vulnerability and makes her believably grow into a character of depth and compassion. This is a no-holds-barred performance in a play that demands nothing less.

I’m not sure that the final scene, good as it is, lives up to the invention of the rest of the play. But this is merely a quibble with a world premiere that deserves a long life beyond Williamstown.