In mid-September, President Bush announced that he would remove as many as 8,000 troops from Iraq. But on New York stages, the surge of plays inspired by the current conflict continues. Craig Wright’s Lady has recently opened at Rattlestick; the Culture Project’s In Conflict, based on interviews with Iraq War veterans, has begun previews. The next couple of months will see Stephen Belber’s Geometry of Fire, about a Marine just returned from Iraq; Craig Lucas’s Prayer for My Enemy, about a soldier on the eve of his deployment; and a return engagement of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch. And this week offers two more battle-scarred works: Michael Weller’s play Beast and Mallory Catlett’s multimedia piece Oh What War.
In Beast, two maimed Iraq vets hit the road and many civilians. Troubled, rageful, and confused, Jimmy Cato (Logan Marshall-Green) and Benjamin Voychevsky (Corey Stoll) drive across the country until fate drops them off at President Bush’s Crawford ranch. Their physical and psychic injuries complicate their journey, as does the fact that Voychevsky, whom we first see emerging from his coffin, isn’t precisely living. He doesn’t eat or sleep; bullets and knives don’t harm him. Near the play’s end, he solicitously asks the president: “Is my semi-alive status an issue, sir? I am uncomfortable with it myself.”
There’s much in the play to discomfit, intentionally and otherwise. Weller and director Jo Bonney search for a tone that successfully combines naturalism, satire, and zombie flick, but never locate it. On the subway home, I sat across from a young man intently studying his playbill: “I never feel this way about shows, but that was just weird,” he said. Weller has indeed written a weird piece, though not an unprecedented one. Beast owes a considerable debt to Irwin Shaw’s 1936 play Bury the Dead, about deceased soldiers who stand up in their graves and refuse interment. And in Stoll’s Voychevsky, nicknamed “Voych,” we hear a verbal echo of Büchner’s Woyzeck.
But for all its absurdity and horror-film trappings, Weller’s script occasionally turns mournful and affecting—if didactic—as when Voychevsky tells Bush: “People see us come home looking this way, lost, hiding, thousands of us—and no one wants to know. They turn away. That’s very wrong, sir. We’re your legacy.”
During World War I, soldiers in trenches suffered from rats, frogs, nits, mustard gas, snipers’ bullets, trench foot, and trench fever. But the trench-set Oh What War suffers a different ailment—solipsism. Despite some fine initial impulses, staunch performances, and Peter Ksander’s gorgeous design, the play objects—conscientiously or otherwise—to engage the audience.
In a director’s note, Mallory Catlett writes: “Oh What War started as an inquiry into political theater at a time when I felt both the urge and the aversion.” She began with Joan Littlewood’s 1963 Oh! What a Lovely War, which juxtaposed comedic scenes and jingoist songs with grim statistics and photographs to undercut the mythos of war. But in a postmodern move, Catlett and writer Jason Craig resisted the impulse to set themselves up as “truth-tellers.” They dispense with the statistics and distort the sound and video until it’s wonderfully incomprehensible. Also, they relocate the action from the battlefield to a hole in the ground, where a crew of deserters lounge amid dustsheets and scaffolding. This is war, then, without war, but without much in its place. “If there’s an attack, it’s personal,” Catlett says, “aimed at my own sense of resignation.” In this case, the personal is not political, merely indulgent.