Albie Sachs was a white South African lawyer thrown in jail in the 1960s without specific charge: The authorities simply wanted to know more about the questionable people he was fraternizing with. Released after 90 days of solitary confinement, Sachs was immediately re-arrested. During his third term he broke down and told his captors what they wanted to know. Bitter with himself as well as the government, he left the country.
I haven't read "The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs," on which David Edgar's new play at the Odyssey (an American premiere) is based. Presumably, it gives the reader a sense of what it's like to be locked into a jail cell for days on end, with only oneself for company: the boredom, the hoodoos, the temptation to doubt one's principles (Sachs was a pacifist) and one's very existence.
Edgar's play conveys these pressures less vividly, at least in Deborah LeVine's Odyssey staging. Melody Boyd's open-stage set, for instance, fails to draw the boundaries of Sachs' cell, making it hard for us to feel the walls closing in. Terri Gens' lighting scheme features quick blackouts, contravening the sense of days endlessly crawling by.
There's a structural problem with Edgar's script as well. Sachs is supposed to be in solitary confinement, but people do seem to keep popping in: hostile figures, to be sure, but at least someone to talk to. And when he's alone, Sachs (Philip Anglim) has the audience to chat with. The silence of solitude is never allowed to gather, even in a three-minute pause that seems to last considerably less than three minutes.
Anglim--well remembered from "The Elephant Man"--would seem to be ideal casting for Sachs. His beautiful face and his light frame suggest a Renaissance painting of a young Christian martyr. He's also a beautifully spoken actor.
But there's something off-putting about his work here. Rarely do you feel that this Albie Sachs is really alone in his cell, truly up against his devils. Rather, there's the sense of a well-favored young actor gracefully catching the light: Richard II in his prison shirt.
Oh, for an American repertory company where Anglim could go off and seriously play Richard II, Poor Tom and Hamlet--and the false-beard parts, too. As a young attorney passionately involved with a social cause, and passionately afraid of leaving his mind in that cell, he's too composed--too legato. More challenging directing would have helped.
The supporting roles are largely doubled, lending an inappropriate air of false-face to the evening. Here, too, a more imaginative director might have turned that into an aspect of Sachs' psychological disintegration, as if he were imagining half the people who walked in. Here it looks like see-what-versatile-actors-we-are time.
Ford Rainey, J. P. Bumstead, Stuart Lancaster and Lev Mailer are among the versatile ones. Michael Stefani is lucky in being allowed to stick to one role, that of a professional inquisitor who finds real job satisfaction in reducing people to their fears. This rings true.
The play picks up in interest at the very end, when Sachs, having betrayed his friends (who don't blame him for it), now must find a way to live with himself. Another playwright might see that as the real beginning of the story.
The reader curious to see how "Rain" plays after all these years can find a revival at the new Tiffany Theatre on Sunset Boulevard. The script--not by W. Somerset Maugham, but by John Colton and Clemence Randolph--creaks like a rusty gate and this company has no idea what to do with it, particularly not Maggie MacDonald as Miss Sadie Thompson. She suggests Beaver Cleaver's sister in the high-school play. I left after Act II. 'THE JAIL DIARY OF ALBIE SACHS'
David Edgar's play, at the Odyssey Theatre. Director Deborah LaVine. Set Melody Boyd. Costumes Valeria Watson. Lighting Terri Gens. Sound Jerry Mastalerz. Original music Lorenz Rychner. Producer Ron Sossi. Associate producer Donne McCormick. With Philip Anglim, Craig Berenson, J. P. Bumstead, Stuart Lancaster, Lev Mailer, Michael Stefani, Peter Virgo Jr., Derrick Wilson. Plays Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. Closes Nov. 30. 12111 Ohio Ave. (213) 826-1626.