While dressing for a party, a pleasant pair of urbanites mulls over vacation plans and debates whether to bring somebody called Luther with them to the soiree. Would he enjoy himself? Will he behave? Judging by the concerned paternal tones, Luther might be their child or maybe even a beloved pet.
But he’s not: The title character of Ethan Lipton’s ferocious new satire—now playing at Here as part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks program—is actually a traumatized war vet recently returned from six years fighting abroad in an unnamed but obviously brutal conflict. Do-gooder duo Walter (Gibson Frazier) and Marjorie (Kelly Mares) have adopted him under a strange social program that operates somewhere between the Humane Society and Foster Parents Plan. Lipton’s brilliant, unsettling conceit anatomizes liberal America’s squeamishness about soldiers. Often, we either patronize them, paying lip service to the value of military service while secretly deploring the violence they’ve been trained to commit, or we infantilize them, seeing them as helpless victims of poverty and policy. Either way, they’re both an abstract quantity and somewhat less than autonomous adults.
The nice couple does take Luther (Bobby Moreno) to the party (it’d be good for him to get out more), and he does misbehave, catastrophically—viciously roughing up a hapless guest in a split-second misunderstanding. From there, the situation only worsens as Luther gets sucked into a dysfunctional justice system clearly overloaded by the burden of so many maladjusted former soldiers—we learn that if found guilty of violent crimes, they’re “put down.” Meanwhile, dystopian details about the wider world begin to leak into the picture: The city Marjorie and Walter inhabit is full of ghettos and overgrown districts that have returned to wilderness, complete with roaming packs of wild dogs. The prison where Luther ends up after another, even more violent, relapse is stuffed with vets waiting to be euthanized. The perennial (and once again timely) question Lipton’s play asks is how can a civilized society deal with its own version of PTSD—how can it re-absorb the people it has educated in the antisocial practice of efficient murder and sent away to kill in its name?
Performed in a snappy, almost televisual, style that only amps up the strangeness, Luther shows that the really awful thing is how quickly horrific political realities can become normal. (Think of everything we’ve gotten used to over the last decade.) In Sesame Street fashion, some bit parts are played by sock puppets, making sly fun of the piece’s status as an issue play while heightening its surreality. Luther’s bright surfaces—Lipton is a very witty writer, and delivers quips aplenty—make its voyage into scary territory more discomfiting.
Crisply directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, the splendid ensemble gives the play the sharply observed performances it deserves. As Luther, Moreno manages to be both ingenuous and unpredictable, a trapped passenger in his own careening psyche. As Marjorie and Walter, Mares and Frazier ably portray fervent, befuddled parenthood—loyal to a fault while inhabiting a comfortable state of profound denial about what Luther really is and the terrible things he may have done. Playing Luther’s victim from the party, John Ellison Conlee moves deftly from gawky character comedy to aggrieved self-righteousness. And Pete Simpson delineates a couple of vital small parts with his customary precision and grace.
The production closes with the enigmatic expressions that bloom on the foster parents’ faces as, reading Luther’s service record, they finally discover the—probably gory—details of his activities in the conflict zone. They miss him, they love him, but they may also be glad he’s gone.