Set in present-day Cambodia, David Wiener’s drama Extraordinary Chambers is about an American couple entangled in the tumultuous politics of this impoverished and largely rural Southeast Asian country.
When Carter (Mather Zickel), an American telecom executive, brings his wife Mara (Marin Hinkle) on a business trip to exotic Cambodia, he never imagines that ghosts of the Khmer Rouge era of this beautiful but war-ravaged country will find a way to haunt their lives. As business deals unravel and personal negotiations quiver with political consequences, Carter and Mara find themselves facing a crucial moral dilemma.
Wiener’s play received readings during South Coast Repertory’s Pacific Playwrights Festival in 2009 and the Ojai Playwrights Conference in August later that year. Its fully staged premiere, directed by Pam MacKinnon, opens June 1 in the intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse. Alongside Hinkle and Zickel are cast members Francois Chau, Kimiko Gelman and Greg Watanabe, who play Cambodians.
Explains Zickel, “Carter works for a phone company planning to open call centers in Cambodia. He’s supposed to meet up with Dr. Heng, who is a facilitator of sorts; he has many contacts in the government and finance, both in the public and private sector.”
Carter, along with his wife Mara, has come to Phnom Penn to launch this business deal. As the week wears on, word comes down that the UN is conducting an investigation, and staging hearings and trials, concerning senior members of the old Khmer Rouge regime. The American couple learns that Dr. Heng has been indicted. This certainly is serious subject matter.
Zickel agrees, “It’s pretty heavy. A big theme in this play is memory and how we remember the past and how we don’t ““ how we put certain things away in order to go on with our lives. I believe all five characters do this, one way or another.”
At its center this married couple has been having difficulties which become heightened by everything else going on. While the trip starts off as a working vacation, it seems Carter believed it would be more of an escape from their lives than it is.Â Instead, extreme circumstances force Carter and Mara to confront various dark aspects of their marriage.
Says Zickel, who appeared as Kieran in the film Rachel Getting Married, “I love stories and plays that have very strong ethical points of view, or at least that challenge ethical notions, and characters are forced to confront shortcomings or evil in their own lives, and what they are going to do about it.” He maintains that generally in the theater, these issues and conflicts get pushed to a point where they can no longer be ignored.
Hinkle, who has played Judith on the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men for eight seasons, says she jumped at the chance to immerse herself in a foreign world. “Unfortunately, I’m not as much of a world traveler as I would like to be. I wish we could have gone to Cambodia for research! So I think the way I make up for that is when I’m offered a play where I get to “˜go’ somewhere else and get the sense of another culture. To me it’s a bit like an archeological dig, getting to the bottom of a character or setting like this. And because I’m not doing too much of that in real life, I treasure it as a great challenge and an exciting part of being an actor.”
She says she fell in love with the world of Wiener’s play. “I didn’t know much about Cambodia until I had to dive into it and educate myself. The issues in the play are really challenging ones to deal with. Plus, a huge event has happened in the past for our characters and that’s a challenge for an actor because you have to layer it in.”
Hinkle says she likes how the playwright handled their back story so deftly, adding, “It’s not until about three-quarters of the way into the play that the audience actually understands why this couple are the way they are.”
Zickel concurs, “There’s a great reveal of information in the play. David did it very artfully, which is essential for good storytelling. Just staying ahead of the audience a little bit and allowing certain elements of story come to light, so you really don’t have a full picture of who these people are and what’s going on until the end.”
What do they expect audiences to get from this play? Zickel deadpans, “A lot of laughs,” before adding, “No seriously, just on a surface level, it’s remarkable how little is known about Cambodia and its past, about the Pol Pot regime, which is kind of shocking. It’s one of the darkest stories I have ever heard about in any human society.”
The Grim Backdrop of Extraordinary Chambers
The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Vietnam War, and ruthlessly massacred, starved and overworked fellow Cambodians. Estimates as to how many people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime range from approximately one to three million; the most commonly cited figure is two million which was about one-third of the population. This era gave rise to the term Killing Fields; the prison Tuol Sleng became notorious for its history of mass killing.
Comments Zickel, “It’s nightmarish on a level that’s hard to imagine.”
Gelman and Watanabe, playing two of the Cambodian roles at the Geffen, also played those characters in the two SCR readings. But this will be the first timeÂ Hinkle and ZickelÂ will play the roles of the Americans.
What has it been like being there for the official birth of these characters? Hinkle replies, “I feel truly blessed. Over the past four or five years, I’ve worked a number of times at the South Coast Rep and been in three new plays and done a lot of readings and it’s an extraordinary experience. I’ve performed in a lot of classics but doing new plays is where collaboration happens. The openness David has had to letting us be part of the birth of this play has been really inspiring.”
Zickel says some of the excitement for him is being part of creating the story and watching the script evolve. He points out it’s an asset to have the others in the cast. Gelman and Watanabe “have been with this play for a lot longer than the two of us have. They have a fundamental understanding of the play that is very deep.”
Hinkle goes on to explain, “Because [Gelman and Watanabe] are playing Cambodians, and since the play is set there and we were the unfamiliar ones, it actually worked, energy-wise because Mather and I felt like interlopers, in a way.”
Working at the Geffen Playhouse
Hinkle previously appeared at the Geffen in two plays — Neil Simon’s Rose and Walsh in 2003 and David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole in 2006, when she stepped into the leading role for the last two weeks of the run.
“The Geffen is an incredible place to work,” Hinkle says. “There aren’t that many large scale theaters in LA that have a big subscription series and funding, and I find this one of the most beautiful theaters I’ve ever worked in.”
Zickel interjects, “And you’ve worked in a lot.” This is his first job at the Geffen — and he’s “thrilled. Of course I am familiar with the Geffen; it’s beautiful and a wonderful facility. But that I had an opportunity to work here is very exciting. They have treated us very well.”
He adds, “I like doing a play in LA which is typically not considered a “˜theater town,’ so when people do theater and come to the theater in LA, it’s because they really want to. I’m from New York where people almost consume theater. It’s a little more matter-of-fact. So, in a way, it’s a little more special out here.”
Director Pam McKinnon
The two leads have nothing but effusive praise for their director, whom they have worked with on previous productions. Hinkle worked with McKinnon at South Coast Rep in April 2009 on a play by Richard Greenberg called Our Mother’s Brief Affair.
Zickel deadpans again, “She’s a harsh task-mistress. Very demanding. No, Pam and I are friends, actually,” he laughs. “We’ve known each other for about 10 years. She and I worked at smaller theaters in New York together with a troupe called Clubbed Thumb. Our careers have taken off in different directions, and I’m so excited to have an opportunity to work with her again. Pam is really smart and has a very gentle hand. She has a good ear for what’s in service of the story and is efficient in that sense. She allows for a personal process, as well.”
Hinkle chimes in, “She’s really focused on the text and the story, and she’s the kind of person who learned what it means to honor every person in the room and make them feel important to the process.”
Zickel continues, “Everyone gets heard. She’s very calm, too. There’s a lot of pressure on the director who has a lot to worry about. It’s nice to have a cool head at the helm. She’s a great director to develop a play.”
Hinkle adds, “I can see why writers would want her because she has their back. Some directors want to put their own stamp or flavor on top of the text. I don’t think that’s Pam’s agenda. She honors the vision of the playwright.”
The rehearsal process lasted a mere three weeks. “That’s not a lot of time and yet I never felt rushed,” Zickel says.
Murmurs Hinkle, “Me neither. She’s really good. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play this year was Clybourne Park, by actor/writer Bruce Norris, and she directed it [in New York]. So you can imagine she’s incredibly sought after now.” Hinkle’s face lights up as she adds, “Also, by the way, she’s a woman and I’ve not worked with too many women directors.” Zickel says he has.
When the actors are asked if having a female director serves this play in any special way, they become pensive. Hinkle replies, “Well, it’s written by a man, right, and there are some powerful things said about women that one could argue are both supportive and critical of women. So I feel safe and in very good hands with a woman director as I feel like it balances it out.”
Zickel says, “The gender relations in the play is the strongest undercurrent in the story, and how the men and how the women deal with certain things and also each other. David’s written a story in which that is touched upon in several scenes. Pam really values the strengths and weaknesses of both sides and how they play against each other.”
Opening Night Rituals
Hinkle says, “The best opening night ritual for me is the creation of opening night gifts and writing all the cards. I love the joy of getting gifts for [fellow company members]. From the second I wake up on the day of opening night, I am so nervous, so my focus goes into the running around town getting the gifts. That’s a great ritual for me because it really allows me to get away from the fear of opening night jitters. Inevitably, they’re going to be there but it just puts my brain somewhere else which is helpful.”
Once again Zickel pauses, then shoots a deadpan comment, “Three martinis. Gin. Straight up. Olives.” This time he may not be entirely joking.
**All Production Photography by Michael Lamont
Extraordinary Chambers, presented by Geffen Playhouse, opens June 1; plays Tue.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 3 and 8 pm; Sun., 2 and 7 pm; through July 3. Tickets: $71-$76. Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles; 310-208-5454 or geffenplayhouse.com.