The eternal debate between art and propaganda is explored in “Spain”

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Danny Wolohan and Andrew Burnap are sitting on red a red couch while Danny has his hand on Andrew's chin.
'Spain' Danny Wolohan (L), Andrew Burnap (R) Photos by Matthew Murphy
Marin Ireland standing in the background with her arms stretched behind her head and Andrew Burnap is in the foreground looking over his right shoulder at her.
‘Spain’ Marin Ireland (L), Andrew Burnap (R) Photos by Matthew Murphy

The Spanish Civil War, fought from 1936 to 1939, has been seen as a “dress rehearsal for World War II,” a battle between communism and fascism, between monarchists and republicans, and a class struggle, among many other interpretations. As in most wars, truth is the first casualty, lost amid the smoke of battle and the haze of fading memories.

“History is written by the victors,” goes the old saying. In Spain, the most recent offering of the Second Stage Theater, the question of who tells the story and how it is told is on display.

Spain takes place in New York’s West Village in 1936. Joris Ivans (Andrew Burnap), a struggling filmmaker with an affinity for documentaries, and his friend Helen (Marin Ireland), a screenwriter and researcher, are collaborating on a film about the Civil War, recently begun. They call in novelists John Dos Passos (Erik Lochtefeld) and Ernest Hemingway (Danny Wolohan) to collaborate. But the film is being bankrolled by the Soviet Union, which has its own ideas on how the story should be told — and who should tell it.

Joris, seeing the film as the means to further his career, doesn’t really care about whose ideology is being presented. And while Dos Passos and Hemingway can’t agree on the format of the story, Helen is finding it increasingly difficult to rationalize the heavy-handed “suggestions” of their Soviet contact, Karl (Zachary James) — or Joris’ seeming willingness to jettison his ideals in pursuit of his ambitions.

Playwright Jen Silverman’s script does, at times, aim for sophomoric humor. Yet the play does a good job of shining a light on the difficult balance between creating art that may convince instead of creating propaganda that will mislead. All four of her “creative” characters are, each in their own way, woefully or fatally naive about the propagandistic use of the arts to create slanted narratives at any cost.

The entire cast is directed through the murk of pre-war extremist subterfuge by Tyne Rafaeli, and they rise to the occasion, delivering, at times, searing performances. Chief among these are Marin Ireland’s Helen, becoming increasingly fearful even as she becomes more aware of the strings attached to Moscow’s financial support; and Zachary James’ Karl, who raises the level of menace each time he makes an appearance in the play.

Zachary James is sitting at a desk smoking a cigarette.
‘Spain’ Zachary James Photos by Matthew Murphy

A shadowy, menacing environment is created by the combined efforts of Spain’s design team: scenic designer Dane Laffrey; lighting designer Jen Schriever; costumer Alejo Vietti; and sound designer/composer Daniel Kluger. Together, they create a believable atmosphere of fear and corruption that fits the play’s message like a skin-tight leather glove.

Spain, although having comic moments (especially in Danny Wolohan’s portrayal of Hemingway), is an offering that requires paying attention. If one does, Spain will deliver solid entertainment with a kernel of reality that, while bitter, is a necessary lesson for all eras. I commend the Second Stage Theater’s choice to present Jen Silverman’s Spain.

Spain is presented by the Second Stage Theater at the Terry Kiser Theatre, 305 W. 43rd Street at Eighth Avenue in New York, through Dec. 17, 2023. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 212-541-4516 or visit 2st.com.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.