Playwright-director Tim Robbins wants to have his MREs—and eat them too. His play Embedded advertises itself as a satire of censorship and deception in press coverage of the war in Iraq. But the script is as concerned with wringing pathos from the plight of U.S. troops as with impishly deriding the Bush cabinet. Tearful letters home vie with “Dick” jokes. Theater boasts a rich tradition of edgy, anti-war comedy (from Lysistrata to Heartbreak House to The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel), but with its confusion between the poignant and the pataphysical, Embedded presents a bewildering plan of attack.
The play opens as three soldiers prepare to leave for the front. Sarge asks his wife to kiss the kids every night for him; Monk promises his girlfriend that he’ll hold her in his heart; Jen assures her parents that as a maintenance worker she won’t see any combat. As the scene ends, they staunchly shoulder their duffel bags and march offstage. Robbins quickly cuts to the Office of Special Plans, ornamented with portraits of neocon pooh-bah Leo Strauss. “Dick,” “Gondola,” “Rum Rum,” arrayed in commedia dell’arte half- masks, cackle and bray as they schedule the invasion of Gomorrah on their PDAs. The journalists do eventually arrive, but almost as an afterthought.
Certainly audiences ought to be informed of media suppression and First Amendment restrictions—although the crowd at the Public already appears to be up on its Guardian and FAIR reading—but that doesn’t actually seem to be Robbins’s area of interest. Though lively and intermittently funny, Embedded is more invested in hitting easy targets. (The government duplicitous? Who knew!) It would seem that complex rhetoric is just another casualty of war.