The New York premiere of Joe Sutton’s Orwell In America is a fascinating exercise and a wonderful show. The play is a what-would-happen piece set between the success of Animal Farm and before the publication of 1984. In the show, an older George Orwell is on a book tour of the United States to promote Animal Farm, with an attractive young publicist, Carlotta. The question is how would Orwell’s well-documented socialism be received in 1950s America.
Jamie Horton brings a cantankerous, funny and stubborn Orwell to life. He has agreed to promote Animal Farm, completely understanding that his book has been used to argue against some of his most prized beliefs – chief among them Socialism. He insists on speaking of his background, his travels, his wife and the Spanish Civil War before getting to the point of the evening, selling books.
Jeanna de Waal plays Carlotta expertly. Carlotta is a proto-feminist, demanding to be accepted as a professional as well as a woman in a man’s world. Carlotta is determined to share her love of George Orwell’s books with as many people as possible, and that means trying to inhibit his fanciful musings and active support for Socialism.
The show might have easily fallen into a pattern of George’ soliloquies, interrupted by Carlotta’s questions only to break them up – because George’s soliloquies are fascinating to a modern audience. George gives amazing examples of Europe’s suffering in a post-war environment and relates that to his believe in the common good and therefore Socialism. Carlotta, for her part, tries – in vain – to get George to understand that in the Cold War environment in the States, Socialism is tantamount to Communism. This frustrates George Orwell to the point of distraction. He believes Communism, particularly as practiced by Russia and Stalin, is horrible and something to be fought against. The fact that Americans equate the two systems infuriates him.
All of this information and expository makes Orwell In America interesting, but what makes this show wonderful is the dynamic between the much older George Orwell and the much younger and beautiful Carlotta. It is in this personal dynamic that Ms. de Waal and Mr. Horton make the characters sing. Their banter is heartfelt and their growing friendship (and Orwell’s desire for more) blooms organically.
Masterful lighting design by Stuart Duke is coupled with great direction by Peter Hackett to effortless segue from personal interaction to public book signings. I was a bit apprehensive at the running time of 1¾ hours, but the show neve3r feels forced or leaden. I loved it.
Orwell In America | Playwright: Joe Sutton | Director: Peter Hackett | Cast: Jeanna de Waal, Jamie Horton, Casey Predovic | website