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The Overwhelming

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Underneath the diarrhea jokes (”When you fart, you’ll fart with fear”), the vomiting, and the prostitute-administered oral sex, J.T. Rogers has penned a provocative piece on life in mid-’90s civil-war-torn Rwanda. To his credit, Rogers — a young playwright whose ambitions ultimately, you’ll pardon the pun, overwhelm his drama — doesn’t demand much of his audience. No previous knowledge of Rwandan history is required; Rogers’ characters — diplomats, government officials, and so forth — explain everything about the warring Tutsi and Hutus clearly and simply. As if exhausted from all that exposition, Rogers has resorted to broad strokes and stereotypes in crafting his characters: The Frenchman (Boris McGiver) is a snob; the U.S. embassy lackey (James Rebhorn) is lazy; the just-arrived American professor (Sam Robards) is a clueless blowhard, spouting platitudes like ”one pebble redirects the river”; his African-American wife immediately trades her stilettos for sandals, adorns her wrists with what looks like locally made jewelry, and expresses her frequent, wistful admiration for the country (”I love this place,” she sighs). Come to think of it, the Africans are the only ones drawn with any depth. The thrust of the plot — the mysterious disappearance of Joseph Gasana (Ron Cephas Jones), the professor’s college roommate/research subject/meal ticket — actually proves quite intriguing, thanks to the delicious inscrutability of the parties involved and to Rogers’ carefully measured, breadcrumb-like revelation of details. Modulated, unselfish performances help, but The Overwhelming still feels stifled by the weight of its own very lofty (unquestionably admirable) aspirations. B- (Tickets: 212-719-1300 or roundabouttheatre.org)

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