WILLIAMSTOWN — “If one guy is starving someplace, that puts a crimp in my evening,” Woody Allen quips in “Annie Hall,” neatly summing up the synthesis of his character’s social activism and social anxiety.
If given due consideration, the totality of the world’s atrocities at any given moment — or even just a handy sampler — is, of course, more than enough to smother a person with survivor’s guilt. Along one line of thinking, anything someone does that is not devoted to redressing some mortal grievance somewhere can seem like a trifling luxury.
So it’s a complicated moral calculus that allows us to make room for educated political engagement alongside all the other stuff that makes a life. The friends in Mike Bartlett’s taut two-hander “An Intervention,” receiving its American premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival through Sunday, are very much in search of that balance. In this 75-minute one-act, a political disagreement over an unnamed conflict in the Middle East prompts a withering examination of a friendship, and of the uncertain relationship between empathy and self-possession.
The characters are identified only as A and B, and Bartlett’s script stipulates that they can be played by actors of any age, ethnicity, or gender. In an inspired stroke, new WTF artistic director Mandy Greenfield has called for double casting; two pairs of actors alternate performances. One pair, Josh Hamilton and Justin Long, features two men, both white. The other includes a white woman and an Indian-American man — Betty Gilpin and Debargo Sanyal. (At the play’s world premiere in London last year, the roles were filled by a man and a woman.)
Though I was only able to catch one pairing (Hamilton and Long), it’s clear the concept is far from a gimmick; this material is ripe for different shadings suggested by the gender and ethnicity of the actors.
We meet these characters at the moment their friendship starts to fracture: Long’s “B” has just told Hamilton’s “A” that he supports a British intervention in an ongoing humanitarian crisis. (For clarity, we’ll let the actors’ names stand in for those of their unnamed characters.)
Hamilton is outraged. If his best friend would buy into “this neocon [expletive]” certain to start a war, he wonders, how well does he really know him? And what about his mate’s dreadful new girlfriend, Hannah? She’s a hippie type whose upbeat personality is at odds with the snarky quips and heated political arguments that form the currency of these men’s friendship.
For his part, Long is relieved to be with someone who has a sunnier outlook. He tearfully calls Hannah a “safe space” offering “security and simplicity,” though with that security comes disengagement from problems farther from home.
As the military intervention escalates, one of the men’s drinking problem worsens, the offstage romance intensifies, and the men’s friendship grows increasingly frayed. Each thinks the other has become a different person, losing something in the process.
Lila Neugebauer’s direction is clear-eyed and fluid, facilitating great work from her actors. Long is magnificent throughout, revealing a somewhat dryly written character as a man keenly aware of a new self growing within him, however disruptive it may prove. Hamilton has less to work with as the more caustic, habitually antagonistic one of the pair, but he depicts his character’s mental dissolution with a pungent, raw articulation.
In an unhappy irony, each man’s chief complaint about the other in this sad dispute turns out to be more or less accurate. As the stakes rise and the tone turns grim, we see the bitter reward of winning an argument you never wanted to have.
By Mike Bartlett. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. At Nikos Stage, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, through Sunday. Tickets: 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org