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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The War Plays (Strange Tree Theatre Group GUEST REVIEWER JOHN TAFLAN)


Man, oh man… War makes people cuh-razy. And not just in the usual trench-digging-in-a-French-field, blowing-up-Death-Stars, eating-your-enemy’s-heart-to-gain-his courage sort of way. The war-crazies find their way into every emotional coffer.

In Emily Schwartz’s new war-themed plays, The War Plays, everyone affected by 1944’s war-torn England has a serious case of the I-wanna-make-babies-with-you-even-though-I-just-met-you-or-paid-for-you-or-loved-your-brother crazies (also known as the emotion, “love”).

Taking her cue from Tom Brokaw’s sweeping volume of honor and sacrifice, The Greatest Generation, Schwartz cleverly (and painfully) shows us what it must have been like to watch our grandparents discover they had sexual feelings for each other (also known as the emotion, “love”). Hey, we all got here somehow (although, I’m never drinking gin again).

You may be asking yourself with a grimace, “Isn’t it a little unrealistic for people to fall in ‘love’ under these sorts of conditions? How could you ‘love’ someone with all the violence, shouting, and terrible odors swirling about?” Well, some day when you tell your grandkids you fell in “love” at the Bull & Bear over on Wells, watch the expressions on their faces and you’ll understand.

The War Plays actually begins before the play, The War Plays, begins when a delightfully spirited band of five musicians (the attractive ‘Allied Orchestra’) enter the Athenaeum’s lobby to cheer us up with some songs. Lead by the vivacious Kitty Berlin (the vivacious Jennifer Marschand), our concerns about the bomb blasts we can’t quite hear are quickly assuaged as this depleted ensemble begins their concert (the rest of our musician friends, we find out, have been called to the front). I gotta say though, as much as I enjoyed this musical prelude, I would much rather have had Kitty and the rest of her folks lobbing grenades from foxholes at those stinking Nazis. Heck, I would have even joined them! That’s why I brought my M-16 to the show and hid it in the press packet. (Note: There must have been some problem with the seats directly surrounding me. Everyone seemed to huddle in the northwest corner or the space, probably under a heating vent. Thank you, Athenaeum.)

Back to the show: Well, shit gets real out in the lobby when a bomb blast nearly frightens us all to death, so our hosts guide us into the steel-reinforced, subterranean concrete theatre so we can see show before we die.

The play itself opens at night on a cramped, Blitz-addled platform in the London Underground. There we meet two teenagers, Minnie and Evan (deliciously played by Delia Baseman and Michael Mercier, respectively). Minnie is Evan’s social worker and “outside monitor” (though she pretends to be his sister). Evan is excited to be from Boston even though they’re in London, and you quickly get a sense that Minnie is just waiting for an excuse to leave him on the platform with a box of Graham crackers so she could go back to graduate school and get a real job. That excuse comes in the form of impetuous dreamboat, Evan (sexily played by Marty Scanlon).

Even though Evan could probably use an “outside monitor” himself (he’s getting turned on by bomb blasts, for goodness’ sake), he and Minnie hit it off in one of the most tender scenes I’ve ever seen. Minnie has been shocked into frigidity by the sudden death of her mother, and Evan’s warmth and passion set fire to her soul; they fall in “love.” Minnie and Evan agree to meet the next day on the corner where Minnie’s mother was killed by a bomb blast.

The scene and set shifts as we meet a wealthy soldier and a prostitute who is not really good at her job. Patrick Cannon is exquisitely moving as a young G.I. (Denny) who really wants to “dance” with Jenifer Henry’s nervous yet beguiling Jackie. Jackie’s brother (deliciously played by Michael Mercier), has been pimping he out of his London flat and seems pretty ok with her not kissing men who want to pay her vast sums of money to do so. I don’t know, maybe Denny is too rich and Jackie and her brother just can’t see the big picture? Ah well. Pimping ain’t easy, and extortion is damn near impossible. Jackie’s fiduciary shortsightedness is ultimately revealed when she falls in “love” with Denny and agrees to kiss him for free which makes both of them really happy. Times were different then.

The scene and set shift again as we move from the European theatre of war back to the home front. Elliot (an excellent Bob Kruse) is irritated that his foot has fallen asleep so he calls a car service to come pick him up. Elliot is also irritated that his imposing relative, Lewis (a fetching Weston Davis), has been playing tennis, drinking gin, and finding hidden keys. Elliot is also extremely irritated that his brother was killed. Elliot is the most irritated, however, with Caroline (a feisty and wet Elizabeth Bagby). Caroline loves Elliot but also loved his brother but since the brother is dead she loves Elliot and shows it by throwing gin in his face. Then he throws gin back in her face. See? War makes people crazy.

I was truly impressed with Strange Tree Group’s The War Plays. I certainly hope you’ve seen it because by the time this review is published it will have closed and you will probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

Did I mention The War Plays is actually three short plays? I’m fairly certain I did.

A-

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