After a Hundred Years delivers little philosophical insight

A friendly conversation about genocide: Peter Christian Hansen and James Saito
Michal Daniel

In one heated scene in the second act of Naomi Iizuka's After a Hundred Years, old college chums Tim (Robert O. Berdahl) and Luke (Peter Christian Hansen) have blasted past all the warning signs on the road to blotto. Before indulging in a bit of fisticuffs (just about the only action that takes place all night), the pair rails on one another about the reality of evil, the responsibility of the wealthy to make the world a better place, and whether attempts to do good ever amount to much.

In other words, their college years may be well behind them, but the content of their boozy dialogue hasn't progressed much. And that's the problem with long stretches of the play, directed by Lisa Portes: It circles around the perimeter of all sorts of Big Ideas, up to and including reconciling the world's evil with any sort of rational belief system, but it delivers little bite either by way of philosophical insight or character development. It feels like a highly professional exercise that never really stirs the soul of anyone involved.

The action takes place in Cambodia in the present. Tim is a doctor working at an AIDS clinic and staring down the fact that an inordinate number of his clients are goners (Berdahl is convincingly burnt-out in the role, offering flashes of asshole arrogance beneath his character's enthusiastic self-martyrdom). He has a bombshell wife in Sarah (Stacia Rice, breathy and caustic), though their relationship is showing cracks.

Then they meet Luke, a journalist from their native America who has received permission to interview Khmer Rouge general Phan Mok (James Saito), who languishes in prison for his crimes in the Killing Fields and elsewhere. It's a career-maker for Luke, though immediately after his arrival he shoots sidelong looks at Sarah that suggest they might be susceptible to, shall we say, an interlude in the drama.

So we're all jazzed up for Luke to interview Phan Mok, potentially a real Clarice-meets-Hannibal moment. Well, let's not get our hopes up. Saito paints the old general in subtle hues, with a reedy voice and sophisticated mien to nicely counter the ghoulish images of the stacked skulls his character helped create. But the crucial series of scenes that follows, in which we're to peer through the unspeakable window of genocide, generally flutter away into not much at all. Toward the end, Luke essentially pounds the table looking for insight. If I had a table in front of me, I might have done the same.

Sun Mee Chomet provides welcome texture in a pair of roles, first as Tim and Sarah's housekeeper haunted by her survival of the genocide years, then as a young prostitute whose dramatic objectification underscores Tim's torment over her impending death from AIDS. And the character of Helene Chea (Mia Katigbak), first presented as a fortuneteller then later revealed to be a madam, hints at a web of social complexity that twangs with injustice and dehumanization.

But while Katigbak nicely maneuvers the border between mysteriously stately and heartlessly venal, we don't get a solid sense here of who Helene is, and a subsequent plot development that draws in Tim, and then Luke, has the ring of plausibility but is deflating at a moment when this show's engines, already starting to stall, need a serious infusion of energy. As it stands, we drift toward a tepid denouement, and the actors strain for emotions their characters haven't really earned.

Back to that drunken scene, in which our two American protagonists fight it out on the mental battlefield, armed with ample whiskey. You feel for them, in a strange land trying to grab onto some measure of truth. The monstrous side of humanity is in dire need of explanation, but placing characters on a stage mouthing mid-grade outrage over it all hardly seems like an innovative way to go about it. 

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