Avalon Theatre Company has found a temporary solution to one of the most pressing challenges facing all local theater groups: the need to expand its audience. The current world premiere staging of Cristina Pippa's Little Bosnia reaches out to the St. Louis Bosnian community, which, the playbill informs us, is second in population only to Sarajevo. On opening night that community responded with a sold-out house and a waiting list of theatergoers eager to slip in at the last minute and fill every remaining seat.
The story they saw concerns Faris (Jason Contini), who was evacuated from Bosnia as a war refugee at age five. Now he is a college student in St. Louis. For reasons that feel more arbitrary than organic, Faris ever so reluctantly must return to Sarajevo to reclaim his parents' apartment from a Croat woman. Once there, as is obligatory in a tale about assimilation, our myopic hero develops an appreciation for his rich heritage and returns to St. Louis a fuller human being.
Little Bosnia taps into the same need for ethnic pride that permeates the drama of every culture. We've seen it twice already this season in plays at New Jewish Theatre; Brian Friel unreels an Irish version in Philadelphia, Here I Come! Not that there's anything wrong with that; stories about our desire to know from whence we came are as old as Homer. But the key to good storytelling lies as much in execution as in theme. Little Bosnia takes all of Act One to get Faris on the plane. Does anyone doubt, even before the curtain opens, that he'll go to Sarajevo? Why waste so much valuable time on phony feints?
What disappoints most about the new script is how uninformative it is. Were it not for the fact that the Gateway Arch looms over the set, how would a viewer even know that Little Bosnia is set in St. Louis? Forget the occasional reference: How is the city a character? What is the experience of being a Bosnian in St. Louis really like? It may be that you cannot generalize about an entire population; that's when specificity takes over. A safe rule is that the more specific your character, the more universal he becomes. But what does Faris want? What does he have at stake? Jason Contini is a poised actor, but there's little here for him to cling to.
Just as we don't get a feel for St. Louis in Act One, we learn equally little about Sarajevo in Act Two. It's hard to fault Faris for not wanting to explore that war-damaged area after he meets Maja, an icy beauty portrayed with Elke Sommer allure by the svelte Anela Islamovic. But surely something should either enlighten or surprise Faris — and us. The evening's only clear comment comes through a pair of aging twin sisters, both played with charm by Susie Wall. The St. Louis émigré pines for the old country; the sister in Sarajevo spends her time watching Dr. Phil on television. The counterpoint is telling. But even here, rather than using Dr. Phil as a Wizard of Oz-like icon who exists in a distant world, he's reduced to being the punch line in a joke that is repeated too often.
Instead of spending time in Sarajevo soaking up atmosphere, the playwright should have spent more time at Union United Methodist Church soaking up the limitations of the stage space. Because Little Bosnia was commissioned by Avalon, Pippa might have tried to tell a story that would transform the theater's liabilities into assets. She did not. Instead the script includes so many scene changes that it pushes the playing space to the breaking point. Finally, a heartfelt plea — not just to Pippa, but to all new playwrights: Enough with this pervasive penchant for puppetry. Nothing can bring a show to a screeching halt as quickly as the arrival of puppets.