Thursday August 16, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN -- As far as physicians, therapists and medical researchers know, only 60 or so cases of FAS -- Foreign Accent Syndrome -- have been documented worldwide; 61 if you count Eden Higgenbotham, the central character in playwright Katori Hall's at times brilliant, at times forced comedy, "Whaddabloodclot!!!" which is having its world premiere in an at times brilliant, at times forced production at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage.

As described in the WTF program notes, FAS is a very real condition brought on by a traumatic injury to the left side of the brain. Patients wake from a deep unconsciousness with a significantly altered speech pattern that corresponds to a specific language that is not their native tongue. The effect, at least initially is to turn the life of an FAS patient upside down.

No one knows that better than Eden, who behaves and speaks as if to the manor born -- think William Buckley with a little Gore Vidal thrown in.

Midway through a co-op board meeting in which she and the other two board members are considering an application by Beyonce and her husband, Jay-Z, to purchase the building's penthouse unit, Eden suffers a stroke. When she awakes, she is speaking in a flawless native Jamaican accent, with full, or nearly full, command of the rhythms, lilt and patois. In an instant, the rules shift. She is treated by her circle as an "other"; made to feel uncomfortable in this setting of class and privilege.

Eden's irreversible condition sends her on a journey that challenges everything she's known or assumed about life beyond her Fifth Avenue co-op.

With sharp, incisive wit, Hall makes the ready observation that we are all far too quick to evaluate people, reach conclusions about people, make judgments about others based solely on how they look and especially how they sound when they are speaking, especially if we can't see them.

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"Whaddabloodclot!!!" plays this theme and variations throughout its nearly 90-minute running time as Eden (played by Tina Benko with uncanny skill), hits the streets and is forced to remain there -- until rescue comes from an unlikely and unexpected source -- when her high-fashion handbag, containing all her credit cards and anything else that can provide access to her $15 million-plus bank account, is stolen at an FAS-Anonymous (one of Hall's most inspired scenes) group meeting and Eden jumps to the wrong conclusion about the thief's identity.

Benko is supported by a terrifically versatile ensemble whose members, each of whom plays multiple roles, include Greta Lee as, among others, Eden's personal secretary, Chellie, a South Korean whom everyone mistakes for Japanese; Brian Tyree Henry as, among others, Dr. Goldberg, a black FAS therapist whose immaculate speech pattern and diction challenge every one of Eden's -- and, dare I say it, ours -- cultural assumptions; Aaron Costa Ganis as, again, among others, a blind street singer who bonds with Eden; and Carolyn Michelle Smith, whose multiple roles include Mercy, who, during a chance encounter with Eden in a Starbucks-style coffee bar, recognizes this wretched figure as the woman whose home Mercy's mother used to clean.

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At its deliciously wicked little heart, "Whaddabloodclot!!!" is a morality tale, an offbeat comedic parable that, unfortunately, runs out of inventiveness and energy, begins repeating itself, stalls, long before it reaches its vaguely defined ending.

Still, when "Whaddablood clot!!!" hits, it hits with deadly accuracy, outrageous humor and blazing wit. And when all else fails, there is Benkop's brilliantly crafted portrayal of Eden, who proves remarkably adept, after some trial and error, at turning the lemons she's been handed into splendid lemonade.