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Defiance

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Faced with the unenviable challenge of following up his mammoth success with Doubt, John Patrick Shanley has now delivered Defiance to Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I. Obviously hoping that theatrical lightning would strike twice, Shanley and MTC have left nothing to chance: In all but its story, this second play in a proposed trilogy mimics its predecessor from top to bottom. Whether that's best for Defiance has apparently not been considered.

Neither Shanley nor director Doug Hughes has given this play a will or personality of its own. In style, structure, and even design (set designer John Lee Beatty, costume designer Catherine Zuber, lighting designer Pat Collins, and sound designer David Van Tieghem are, like Hughes, all veterans of Doubt), no expense has been spared to tell a new story while evoking an essentially familiar experience.

This gives Defiance a distinctly mass-produced, dogs-playing-poker quality that overshadows its grander subject of personal responsibility in an anonymous environment. (This theme, touched on in Doubt, is also likely to be central to Shanley's third play.) So it's difficult to assess Defiance on its own merits: As everything has been written and produced to remind you of Doubt, this play cannot rightfully be judged in a vacuum.

The story here: At Marine base Camp Lejeune in 1971 North Carolina, black Captain Lee King (Chris Chalk) is being forced to address racial issues he'd rather ignore: "I just want to disappear into my uniform," he says. But his superior officer, the aging Lt. Colonel Littlefield (Stephen Lang), is making that impossible: He's angling for one final burst of glory, a last promotion he's certain he can achieve if he manages to tame the racial tensions rife within the camp.

King reluctantly helps him by mentioning possible discriminatory behavior at a nearby housing development. But when Littlefield subsequently investigates, he sleeps with the wife of a young private. When the private presses the matter to King, whom Littlefield has appointed as his executive officer (to further his own agenda), King is torn between exposing Littlefield's behavior and adhering to the chain of command by keeping his mouth shut.

The beginning of a good story, you might be thinking, rife with dramatic potential? Sure. But this is actually the whole of Defiance, the complete scenario on which Shanley and Hughes hang their 90 minutes of drama. Ah, you might also be thinking, was Doubt not fashioned from even less? In all fairness, yes.

But what it possesses that Defiance does not is impeccably intricate crafting. Its story of a conservative nun suspecting a liberal priest of child abuse is laid out almost immediately and restated, reconsidered, and reconfigured in every subsequent scene. There are no extraneous lines, words, or concepts. Everything builds on everything else; every detail is relevant. When explosions happen, as they do right up to the final moment, they're earned.

Defiance requires roughly an hour to reach equivalent critical mass. Once King discovers his dilemma, Shanley works at breakneck speed, and with the masterly precision evident in all his best work: With the exception of the action's specific climax, which involves Littlefield's put-upon wife (Margaret Colin) surprising her husband and King at a critical juncture, the last half hour is exciting, unpredictable drama of the kind that Shanley led people to expect after giving it to them time and time again in Doubt.

The first 60 minutes are all setup, and feel like it. Shanley delineates the various threads of defiance he'll weave throughout the story with the subtlety of black permanent marker on white fabric: The military officer who'll follow his superior's orders about what to drink, Littlefield's son who escapes to Canada to dodge the draft, an opportunistic chaplain (Chris Bauer) who encourages the aggrieved private to violate the chain of command, and so on.

But it takes too long to add up, and doesn't satisfy when it finally does. Despite Hughes's rapid-fire pacing, there's just too much waste in the writing and the acting: A gunnery sergeant (Trevor Long) delivers a speech in the first scene to establish the location and promptly vanishes; as the private, who is onstage for perhaps five minutes, Jeremy Strong so revels in anguished histrionics that he's practically mocking Adriane Lenox, whose titanic one-scene appearance in Doubt earned her a Tony Award.

The other acting is more accomplished, if hardly more affecting: Lang, Colin, and particularly Bauer dip into caricature for their portrayals, generally behaving as though they're auditioning for bit parts on the old CBS sitcom Major Dad. Only Chalk, who's tasked with little more than displaying varying degrees of stolidity, meets his role's requirements. But he still does just what's required, and no more.

Great art isn't made that way - Doubt certainly wasn't. It was conceived as an original, special creation, and received what it needed to thrive: top people, onstage and off, working at the very height of their creative abilities. Defiance needed to be accorded that same treatment in order to be viewed as both a part of a larger structure and worthy on its own. But as it currently stands, what reason do we have to believe it's anything more than a precursor to the final entry of Shanley's trilogy, Ditto?


Manhattan Theatre Club
Defiance
Through April 30
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I at City Center, 131 West 55th Street at NY City Center between 6th and 7th Avenues
TICKETS: CityTix at 212.581.1212