Brits Off Broadway: Artefacts

PUT ON A HAPPY VASE Watts receives an ancient present.

PUT ON A HAPPY VASE Watts receives an ancient present. Photograph: Simon Annand

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>2/5

The Iraq War has a lot to answer for: the needless deaths of tens of thousands, increased instability in a volatile part of the world and a multibillion-dollar hemorrhage of treasure. Further down the list of the conflict’s lamentable by-products is bad political theater. For every Betrayed or Stuff Happens—decent, quasi-journalistic attempts to reckon directly with the war’s tragedies—we get a wobbly, well-intentioned allegory like Artefacts, which is as dangerously thin as its lead, the callow London teen Kelly (a brittle but magnetic Lizzy Watts).

Young playwright Mike Bartlett does have a sharp ear for Kelly’s poppy patter, sprinkling it as seamless narration and commentary around and within scenes; it’s his scenes that don’t work. Having just learned she’s half Iraqi from her well-meaning single mom (Karen Ascoe), Kelly is abruptly introduced to her long-absent father, Ibrahim (Peter Polycarpou). He brings her a priceless vase purloined from the Baghdad Museum, along with the news that she’s got a half sister—and a backlog of unprocessed postcolonial guilt—waiting for her in her father’s war-torn homeland.

Barely a credible moment follows, despite the fine cast’s best efforts and Lucy Osborne’s dusty, distressed design. If Artefacts never quite convinces either as narrative or as fable, it soon enough drops any such pretense and cranks up the sermon. Short version: The Brits created Iraq and now, with a lot of American help, have managed to shatter it. With a play this obvious and underrealized, can we blame mall rat Kelly if she tunes out?

59E59. By Mike Bartlett. Dir. James Grieve. With ensemble cast. 1hr 30mins. No intermission.