An old recruitment poster shows a couple of tots gathered around their father’s armchair, asking: “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” That’s an uncomfortable question to pose to the daddies in Lars Norén’s War and Trista Baldwin’s Sand. In both plays, family men—and all other men, as well as most of the women—display little heroism. Life during wartime consists instead of infighting, irresponsibility, criminality, insanity, and all manner of inadvisable fraternizing.
In Norén’s play, set in a nameless Eastern European country, a father (Laith Nakli) returns from a prison camp without the use of his eyes. His blindness prevents him from noticing that his wife (Rosalyn Coleman) has taken up with his brother and that at least one daughter has turned to prostitution. The minimal plot hinges on whether or not he’ll discover these truths. Though disabled, he still attempts to fuck and fight, but his desperate swings and occasional attempts at incest miss their targets.
Norén, one of Sweden’s leading playwrights, lands plenty of his own punches—vicious ones. In this miserable family, the elder daughter tells her mother, “Quit your fucking nagging, bitch.” The father chides the women not only for having eaten the family dog, but for what they imagined as they ate it. “I pretended he was chicken paprika,” says the younger daughter. “You couldn’t pretend he was something more elegant?” her father snarls back. Neither he nor the family he left behind has been spared any horror by unnamed enemies—rape, starvation, torture.
With its placelessness and lack of particular detail, perhaps War is meant to function as a parable, as some metaphor for the beleaguered human condition. Energetically unpleasant, Norén’s script details all sorts of terrors and privations, but it remains insular, specific to the distasteful universe he’s created. Anders Cato’s direction, efficient if uninspired, doesn’t remedy this. Norén’s fierce, compact sentences pile up without amounting to much, and as the nastiness continues, the play seems to lose what little form it possesses. At the finish of the opening-night performance, when the lights fell, applause did not immediately follow. The audience wasn’t pausing out of shock or respect, but in confusion over whether or not the play had finished. That botched ending—call it another casualty of War.
More casualties figure in Baldwin’s Sand, set somewhere in Iraq. Of the three soldiers introduced at the beginning of the play, only one survives until the final curtain, and he descends into madness. The military has deployed a sergeant and a private to guard a gas station somewhere in the desert. The private, Justin (Alec Beard), jokes about making a call home: “Hey Mom, I just arrived here at the war, and guess what, ain’t nothin’ left to do.” But Justin soon finds there’s plenty to do—like flirt with a young supply-truck driver (Angela Lewis) or strike up a dangerous friendship with local Ahmed (Pedro Pascal).
Playwright Baldwin has a way with atmosphere and dialogue. She, director Danielle Topol, and set designer Anita Fuchs conjure a hot and hallucinatory environment where civility and routine fail. But that’s part of the play’s trouble: Baldwin’s depiction of the Army feels naive, if not facetious. Military discipline isn’t so easily lost—not many real soldiers distribute packs of Skittles to possible insurgents, nor do sergeants teach salsa dancing while on duty. The unreality of these interpersonal relationships undermines Baldwin’s attempts to suggest the greater unreality of war and the toll it exacts on those who fight it.
Both authors want to suggest the futility of conflict and how it results in pain and loss for everyone involved—even the putative victors. But Baldwin and Norén have rendered situations so unnatural (sometimes to the point of inadvertent comedy) that their critiques dissipate and scatter. War, what is it good for? Not, in these instances, for drama.