It wouldn't be inaccurate to describe Embedded as heavy-handed, but it would be missing the point. In writing his corrosively satirical new play, which just opened at The Public Theater's Newman Theater, Tim Robbins had only one goal: present his political views and interpretation of current events to people that agree with him. In that way, the play can be seen as nothing less than a smashing success.
Viewed from almost any other angle, the verdict is somewhat less clear. Robbins, an abundantly talented film actor (he just won an Academy Award for his performance in Mystic River) and outspoken liberal, takes so many shots in Embedded that there's not much room left for a play. That, more than the vehemence with which Robbins declares his point of view about the War in Iraq, is what causes Embedded to falter.
Robbins never refers to Iraq by name, though - the country under attack from U.S. forces in operation "Awe and Shock" is Gomorrah (get it - Saddam / Gomorrah?), its capital city is Babylon, and its leader is known only as The New Hitler. The bad guys are a group of conservative lawmakers protecting their own financial interests, swearing fealty to Leo Strauss, and getting sexually aroused at the thought of war (they're masked - and thus dehumanized - by Erhard Stiefel); the good guys are the journalists attempting to get out the truth, though many of their reports are suppressed by the military.
Real characters are few. The lawmakers have names (like Rum-Rum and Gondola), there's a Jessica Lynch-like soldier named Jen-Jen Ryan (played by Kaili Hollister) who suffers a blackout during an attack and around whom a number of wildly different stories (and possible TV movies) swirl, and there's Colonel Hardchannel, (V.J. Foster) who tortures the embedded journalists under his care, suppresses their stories, and laces his drills with quotes from musical theatre songs.
None of these add up to real characters, but in a satire do they really have to? Satire can usually get by if it's trenchant and funny, but Embedded is really neither. By the end, Robbins has made his feelings known about the military, the Bush administration, and the journalists and other innocents who have died since the United States first began its Iraq liberation mission last year, but hasn't he already made his point of view public knowledge? Does Robbins have no responsibility to give something else, something new to his audience?
Regardless, he gives it to them, but not in his writing - Robbins also provides some of the year's most superb direction. His staging is about as inventive and briskly paced as his writing is unsurprising. Robbins has some help from Adam H. Green's lighting design, but the seamless motion between the Gomorrah desert, army tents, training grounds, dance halls, and darkness-shrouded hospitals must be attributed solely to Robbins. (Richard Hoover's set consists of little more than a few non-descript set pieces.)
Robbins's staging also requires that most of the actors are always visible to the audience, though they're capable of vanishing so quickly as one figure and reappearing as another that it often seems as if there are more than 13 people in the company. Ben Cain, Brian T. Finney, Mark Lewis, Riki Lindhome, Jay R. Martinez, Kate Mulligan, Steven M. Porter, Brian Powell, Toni Torres, Lolly Ward, and Andrew Wheeler make up the balance of the company, though only Hollister and Foster really stand out, and Foster's portrayal is the only wholly successful one.
Perhaps that's because Robbins takes special care to make sure that Hardchannel as ignorant and cruel as possible. He relies on some clichés about angry military men in constructing him, yes, but Foster is about the only actor allowed to play a person, complete with strengths, weaknesses, and unique peccadilloes. (I'll let pass the implication that only someone this thoroughly uncaring and uncultured would devote his life to musical theatre.) Robbins's other attempts to define a few individual personalities in the journalists, including two who fall in something sort of like love, fall flat, but Hardchannel is at least one real personality to grab onto.
One can't help but wish Robbins had written a few others, just to dilute his anger at the state of world events a bit more. Robbins's satire isn't pointed or funny enough on its own, and anger by itself is not necessarily inherently theatrical. Still, his breezy direction makes Embedded a surprisingly breezy and even enjoyable affair despite the leaden, proselytizing writing.