It takes courage to be an actor. Not to mention talent, dedication, and a whole lot of resilience. But as Eleni Kourti, writer and performer of “The Magic of Too Late” discovers, it also takes something more important. “If you don’t want to wait for the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” chides a spiteful casting agent, “you must lose the accent.” Evidently, to be an actor, it takes sounding like an American.
“The Magic of Too Late” is the semi-surrealist story of a young foreign-born actress who is constantly denied work because of the way she speaks. After being mocked and rejected for her accent in a series of auditions, the actress meets a mysterious agent who will consider helping her on the condition that she completes his eight labors. “Eight?” the actress asks defiantly, “Hercules had twelve labors. Why not twelve?” But as she soon learns, even as few as eight labors will prove fiendishly insurmountable.
What follows is a serialized list of the obstacles the actress must overcome to make it in Hollywood, but while Hercules’ twelve labors were feats of strength and cunning, these labors exclusively concern language. The agent demands that the actress doesn’t just learn a new language and master a different way of speaking, but also that she renounces and obliterates her old one.
It’s a brutal derision of the privilege and power that flourish not just in the entertainment industry, but in a nation that still has a long way to go to accept English language learners. And while “The Magic of Too Late” has cutting social commentary in spades, it wisely steers away from any outright discussion of politics, and instead focuses with pinpoint precision on the personal struggles of its heroine. She must toil through the valleys of her shameful mispronunciations, become a stranger to her tearful past, conspire in the assassination of her cultural identity, and subjugate herself before an uncaring industry that shows little signs of changing.
That clever wordsmithing comes through Kourti, who delivers a compellingly fierce performance, both as actor and writer. The ironic tragedy of the whole piece is that Kourti, whose experiences as a foreign-born actor presumably inspired the play, has a caustically brilliant command of the English language. Her acerbic prose flows with a piercing acuity that reveals a great passion for the written word.
As a performer, Kourti takes a match to her kerosene-soaked script. Most of the show consists of the agent detailing the struggles the actress must face, and in that role, Kourti is appropriately defiant and contemptuous. She stands squarely in the center of the stage, never moving from her mark, and delivers her lines with a determined stare that never breaks off. And while “The Magic of Too Late” doesn’t ask much of its performer in the way of range, the rage and sorrow that Kourti pours into every line keep the work engaging.
Although light on story and conventional character work, “The Magic of Too Late” is a triumph that demands attention. Kourti’s tale of unacceptance and linguistic supremacy cuts like a filled razor and bellows out a rallying cry for multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusivity. It’s a strange thing when an actor isn’t allowed to inhabit their role. Speaking of the casting agents of her past, Kourti reports that “they weren’t looking for actors; they were looking for imposters.” In response, Kourti has crafted a piece of utter authenticity and integrity. While it’s hardly hopeful, the anger that pervades “The Magic of Too Late” is oddly inspiring in its condemnations. It might be too late for magic, but it’s never too late for change.
“The Magic of too late” Written and Performed by Eleni Kourti Sept. 28 at 7:30pm Director: Austin Pendleton Photo: courtesy of the production United Solo 2018 Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.