Review: A shady documentary becomes a weapon of war in 'Spain'

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Review: A shady documentary becomes a weapon of war in 'Spain'
Danny Wolohan (as Ernest Hemingway), left, and Andrew Burnap in the play “Spain” at Second Stage Theater in New York, Nov. 7, 2023. Jen Silverman’s noir play, a fictional an account set during the Spanish Civil War, considers the role of artists in the making of propaganda. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Jesse Green

NEW YORK, NY.- “Financing is complicated when it comes to the arts,” says a low-budget filmmaker in Jen Silverman’s “Spain.” That’s hardly news, but the clever if murky play, which had its world premiere Thursday at Second Stage Theater, offers a solution: Let the Soviets foot the bill.

In Silverman’s telling, the filmmaker, Joris Ivens, a Dutchman working in the United States, is already an undercover infiltrator for Soviet interests when the Spanish Civil War breaks out in 1936. Over bloody steak in a dim restaurant, his handler “offers” him the chance to make a big-budget pro-Republican documentary whose theme would be “the noble peasant crushed by the rich fascist.” The goal: to end American neutrality, overthrow Francisco Franco and change the world. The part about communizing the emergent republic by any means necessary is left unsaid.

Ivens was a real filmmaker, and his movie “The Spanish Earth,” released in 1937, was a real cause célèbre among leftists and artists. Frenemies Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos did write the screenplay, as Silverman relates. The financial role of Soviet intelligence is debatable, but then so is the intelligence of those who failed to perceive the threat of Stalinist terror in what was obviously propaganda.

Despite the actual names, “Spain” behaves like a work of fiction. Much honored as an artist in his lifetime, Ivens (Andrew Burnap) could not have been as dim, especially about film, as Silverman makes him. (He imagines shooting part of the documentary from an ant’s point of view, or a raindrop’s.) Nor, for all his faults, was Hemingway (Danny Wolohan) so complete a buffoon, given to shouting such hollow nonsense. (“We are all Spain! But how?”) And though turning dos Passos (Erik Lochtefeld) into a whiny milquetoast is a questionable liberty, it’s less problematic than the way he’s set up as the play’s firm moral center. His later support for right-wing causes suggests that his moral center was movable.

To correct for such blurriness, Silverman throws a largely invented (yet somehow truer) character into the mix. Helen (Marin Ireland) is another infiltrator, given the assignment of assisting Ivens under cover of being his girlfriend. In Ireland’s typically incisive performance, here colored with a touch of period archness, she is fascinating to watch even when seemingly stuck with Burnap in a Möbius strip of suspicion and self-doubt. The scenes in which they wrangle over their goals as artists and as citizens — wondering whether making the movie might be morally acceptable despite the compromises and risks involved — are the best in the play.

“Can a false story be so good,” Helen asks, “that it does something true?”

Regarding “Spain,” a synthetic yarn with too many twists to follow in 90 minutes, the answer to that same question is no. I soon stopped trying to make sense of it, realizing that the story didn’t matter; ultimately Silverman is less concerned with Russian influence in the Spanish Civil War than with the permanent problem of art in the world. A final underwhelming gesture takes us even further from the facts to consider whether Soviet-style propaganda really died with the Soviet Union or merely moved elsewhere, co-opting more artists in the process.

Dramatizing that airy premise by marrying it to a familiar entertainment template does neither spouse any favors. Silverman’s dialogue has the clipped rhythm of screwball comedy but not the wit — strange, because several earlier works, including “Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties,” “The Roommate” and “The Moors,” are so pointedly funny. Here, despite the quite palpable efforts of the actors, even the best lines seem unable to escape the dark gravity of Tyne Rafaeli’s staging.

To be fair, that staging is faithful to Silverman’s instructions in the script, which emphasize the conventions of noir thrillers. Certainly the clichés of the genre are reproduced too numerously and obviously not to be purposeful: brutalist black boxes with sliding panels; shadowy figures in evening dress; slanting shards of chiaroscuro; reverberant amplification and portentous music cues. (Sets by Dane Laffrey, costumes by Alejo Vietti, lighting by Jen Schriever, sound and original music by Daniel Kluger.)

The overall effect is heavy, and less clarifying than perplexing. When we finally see a bit of Ivens’ film — not projected on a screen but enacted live onstage — it is for some reason an opera, featuring an aria (“We Pray for Rain”) sung by big-voiced bass Zachary James, who otherwise plays a Soviet agent.

It may be that we are not meant to parse the scene’s meaning, or anything else in this overloaded effort. “Spain” is, after all, a play about propaganda, which is most effective when swallowed whole, if only that were possible.

‘Spain’Through Dec. 17 at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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