Review by Samuel L. Leiter
Spoiler alert: the intriguing title of this strange play—a co-production of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and piece by piece productions—is a red herring. If you’re expecting a geopolitical drama dealing with specific issues concerning Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, or Kuwait, you’re in the wrong place. The chief characters are American, but the title, presumably intended as a metaphor for a world that’s coming to an end “in the not too distant future,” could as easily be composed from any of dozens of possibilities. Before you can do that, though, you have to figure out what, aside from the old news that war is hell, playwright Daniel Talbott, who also directed, is seeking to communicate.
Much of the Gym at Judson, a former church gymnasium, has been filled by set designer Raul Abrego with sand, which you walk through when you head for your seat. At the far end is a concrete, bunker-like outpost, a dune rising up its front, and a set of steps leading to its roof. Occupying this outpost in an unspecified land are two grungy, sweat-soaked American soldiers in camouflage fatigues (costumes are by Tristan Raines): the Southern-accented Smith (Seth Numrich), in aviator glasses and often shirtless, is an aggressive loudmouth; Leadem (Brian Miskell), from California, is somewhat diffident and younger. Their company is a beat-up boom box.
But before we meet these guys we’re introduced to the Woman (Jelena Stupljanin), who enters in the darkness speaking Serbian and lamenting having been gang raped multiple times by soldiers. You have to read the script to know she’s Serbian, although most of her lines will be in English; as per the generic anonymity granted by her designation as “the Woman,” her origins and identity remain unidentified. Equally confusing are the allusions in a flashback (a dream? a hallucination?) by Leadem’s kid brother (Jimi Stanton) to the rape of a woman that Leadem appears to have been involved with back home; that atrocity seems somehow linked to this woman, who appears in his imagination. There’s even a scene in which they discuss riding a roller coaster while on a date. Apparently meant as a symbol of violence toward women everywhere, she eventually takes up permanent residence on stage, sitting there quietly brooding and, since only Leadem sees her, deepening the murkiness.
The play, with its puzzlingly elusive blend of surrealism and realism, is reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, since most of the action concerns Smith and Leadem’s boredom as they fry under a blazing sun that never sinks; they’ve lost contact with their base and don’t even know what day it is. They chatter randomly, shout in frustration, and exercise furiously, surprising behavior for soldiers under an unremitting desert sun with diminishing food and water. A couple of scenes picture Smith with Leadem’s mother (Kathryn Erbe, looking youthful enough to be her 21-year-old son’s sister) in California, where, bizarrely, romance seems to hover. What’s he doing there? It’s a puzzlement.
Soon they have to share their limited supplies with another soldier, Miller (Chris Stack), whose comrades were wiped out by a mine. No one knows who they’re fighting, or who’s winning, although we hear that California, New York, and Washington, D.C., not to mention China, may no longer be around (so why the scenes in California?). Miller wants to marry his girlfriend when he gets home. Do people actually go home from here? Is marriage still a goal in a world like this? Whatever. At least Miller gets to teach Leadem the Twist.
Filler stories help pass the time, like the one about men having sex with dolphins, but the only thing close to a central conflict is the existential one of men bored out of their craniums, lacking basic supplies, and considering flight or suicide. Like Didi and Gogo, they’re waiting for something, but just what isn’t clear, either to them or to us. Contact with their leaders? Provisions? Madness? Death? The audience, at least, knows what it’s waiting for—the end.
Mr. Talbott’s production—with its desert setting, excellent lighting (by Joel Moritz) highlighting multiple brief tableaux, projections (by David Tennent), and powerful sound effects (by John Zalewski)—makes up in atmospherics what it lacks in narrative coherence. But atmospherics, and even the quality performances on view, aren’t enough to constitute a drama, no matter how well intentioned.
Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait may seem like Waiting for Godot in fatigues, but Beckett’s absurdist play is a masterpiece of clarity by comparison; Mr. Talbott’s gloomy work about boredom succeeds only in making you understand the meaning of that word.
*Photo: Joan Marcus
Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait
The Gym at Judson
243 Thompson Street
Through June 27