In “Death of a Driver,” playwright Will Snider delivers a thoughtful two-character drama that depicts a poignant but doomed relationship between people from opposite sides of the globe. The play is being presented by the Unicorn Theatre in a virtual production through Nov. 29.
In a program note, Snider explains that for three years he worked for an agricultural nonprofit in Kenya and Ethiopia in a sincere effort to help impoverished people while keeping a safe distance from each country’s local politics. The effort bespoke an inevitable Western arrogance. His play, he writes, “is much more than the dramatization of my own cognitive dissonance around my early professional life. This is the story of two people who want to change the world, even as the world changes them.”
Indeed, the notion that do-gooders can breeze into a Third World country to lend a helping hand for the people while ignoring corrupt political rulers is an appealing idealistic fantasy. But the inevitable reality recalls the famous quote by Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Substitute “politics” for “war” and you get the point of this play.
Snider wrote an impressive comic drama called “How To Handle a Knife,” set in the kitchen of a lower Manhattan restaurant staged by the Unicorn in 2017. That play incorporated hyperrealism into the story — audiences watched actors playing cooks prepare real food in real time — while telling the story of a tormented chef in decline. The busy kitchen staff explicitly reflected the politics of immigration in this country.
There’s no hyperrealism in “Death of a Driver” in the Unicorn’s digitally executed production. It feels and looks more like a dream in which people dwelling in an etherial zone don’t really age as the years march by. That’s mainly because this is a green-screen show in which actors perform before digital sets. Even more impressive, director Ian R. Crawford and director of photography Conor Tierney were able to capture performances separated by half a continent — Elise Marie Poehling in Kansas City and Teddy Trice in New York — and depict them interacting face to face. The visual integration of the actors and the digital backgrounds created by production designer Em Swenson is occasionally less than ideal, but the end result is quietly amazing.
Poehling plays Sarah, an idealistic young engineer from the U.S. who wants to build Kenya’s first four-lane highway, which she believes will boost commerce and trade to the benefit of poor Kenyans. Teddy Trice appears as Kennedy, Sarah’s driver, a serious man with an infectious smile. They gradually form a close relationship, one eventually — or should I say inevitably — flavored with a degree of longing that never gets beyond the “what if” stage.
As the years roll by, Sarah gets her highway close to completion. But Kennedy, because of his involvement in Kenyan tribal politics, is thrown in jail more than once, putting at risk Sarah’s laser-focused ambition to get the highway finished. The situation drives a wedge between them, lending the play an authentic tragic arc.
Poehling, who often is tapped for musicals and crazed comedies, here steps up to a “straight” role and shows us an ability to inhabit a complex, sometimes unsympathetic character. Trice, who used to be based in KC before making the move to New York, is one of the most charismatic actors you’re likely to see and delivers a nuanced performance that effortlessly attracts the viewers’ sympathies as a complicated man who is acutely aware of his flaws.
Streaming theater may be a fact of life going forward during the COVID-19 pandemic, even if the encouraging news about the development of vaccines becomes reality. Live theater is great, but virtual theater offers audiences a way to appreciate the work of actors and playwrights in way that’s not always possible in a conventional setting.
“Death of a Driver” is available for streaming through Nov. 29. Go to www.unicorntheatre.org or call the box-office at 816-531-7529.