Review: "United Nations: The Other West" is a Welcome Addition to Thirdwing's U.N.-iverse

United Nations: The Other West

Written and directed by Cameron Darwin Bossert

Presented by Thirdwing in association with Out of the Box Theatrics at 154 on Christopher

154 Christopher St., Manhattan, NYC

November 21-December 10, 2023

Matthew Sanders, Wesli Spencer, and Yelena Shmulenson. Photo by Valerie Terranova
While the U.N. diplomats and functionaries in Thirdwing's United Nations series may not often be very happy to be there, we are thrilled to be back in their company with the latest entry, The Other West. One might think of The Other West, written and directed by Thirdwing founder Cameron Darwin Bossert, as a workplace comedy with a global scope and an astute satirical edge. Thirdwing is a hybrid theater, streaming, and events company that offers monthly and yearly subscription options; its United Nations series began with the Pale Cast of Thought (2020) web series and the stage play The Border and the Coast (2022; you can read our review here), and the theatrical debut of The Other West will be complemented by the web-based Tribes, the first episode of which premieres this week (the United Nations streaming collection, including a digital version of The Border and the Coast, is also available for one-time purchase without a Thirdwing membership).

The Other West takes place in the aftermath of the military coup in Burkina Faso that took place in The Border and the Coast, with German ambassador Rudolph Schmid (Matthew Sanders) - the connecting thread through all of the U.N. stories so far and always a delight to watch - and Russian ambassador Agata Orlov (Yelena Shmulenson) both returning from that previous play. The Other West sees the arrival of Charles Kabre (Wesli Spencer), the representative of Burkina Faso's new government - but not before a prologue that cleverly establishes that many Americans are quite a bit more knowledgeable about the minutiae of entertainment IP than they are about geopolitics, especially when it comes to African nations. Perhaps, the prologue posits, fictionalization such as the play itself presents will find a more receptive audience. As a new arrival, Charles provides an outsider's perspective that emphasizes the morass of form and protocol in which the U.N. is mired, which extends from how his presence in New York is both stage-managed and micro-managed to official diplomatic reactions to his country's coup. One of those charged with such micromanaging is liaison Linda Gerald (Siobhan Crystal), whose area of expertise, she says at one point, is looking things up, not solving problems - an assertion that is put to the test when an emergency lockdown finds her confined with Rudolph, Agata, and Charles, trapped as much by regulations as by what is happening outside of U.N. headquarters.  
Yelena Shmulenson and Siobhan Crystal. Photo by Valerie Terranova
Symbolism of the U.N.'s (and not unrelatedly, globalized neoliberalism's) role in world affairs can be found in moments such as the characters experiencing hunger right outside a locked cafeteria, the failure of medical aid to arrive in a timely manner or emergency systems to function properly, and in Charles's interpretation of Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd's 1984 sculpture Non-Violence, which stands outside U.N. headquarters and depicts a revolver with the barrel tied in a knot, as a gun firing on itself. Even the fact that there are only two chairs on the stage, painted a pale, U.N. blue, for four characters could be seen to hold some thematic resonance. This does not mean that the characters do not address issues around revolution (both the play's fictional coup and the historical 1983 Burkinabé revolution) and neo-colonialism directly, and eventually, bluntly, impelled by their confinement together. It is much to Bossert's credit that when the play briefly seems to be headed in the "everyone learns to work together to accomplish a goal" direction, what actually ends up happening is more nuanced, more interesting, and more cutting.
Matthew Sanders and Siobhan Crystal. Photo by Valerie Terranova
Excellent performances realize characters who are never mere political ciphers but rather genuine individuals, with all of their quirks and contradictions. Spencer not only lends Charles a charm and rhetorical conviction such that it's easy to forget, until another character reminds us, that we shouldn't necessarily take all of his rosy picture of the (post-)revolution at face value but also manages to make us feel sympathy for a completely implied lanternfly. Shmulenson and Sanders again make fantastic frenemies as the brusque Agata and anxious Rudolph, and the latter's rant about French culture offers one standout comedic moment among many. Another outstanding moment comes courtesy of Crystal, when Linda finally dispenses with the bureaucratic mask that had until that point only briefly slipped a few times. There is no analogous slippage for the play itself: The Other West is equally sure-footed whether its reference points are the IMF or the Barbie movie, and its humor, rich contextualization, and probing intelligence make it a pleasure to be locked in a room with its characters for a few hours.
 
-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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