It's no coincidence when an anti-war play opens on Independence Day - what better time than the celebration of the Declaration of Independence to remember the one indisputable cost of any war: that people die? And with the United States's two primary political parties still locked in a conflict over the meaning of patriotism and the rationale for war abroad, the time isn't wrong for something like Touch the Names.
But would Randal Myler be at the top of anyone's list for assembling and staging a moving evening of anti-war epistolary theatre? Aside from his predilection for theatre pieces composed almost entirely from pre-existing material, what on his resume (which includes It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, Love, Janis, Hank Williams: Lost Highway, and Dream a Little Dream) suggests he could bring to life a show - I hesitate to call this a play - based on letters left at Washington D.C.'s Vietnam Veterans Memorial?
The result at the Abingdon Theatre Complex is more or less what you'd expect from someone of Myler's particular pedigree. While never exactly boring, the ten-actor, 75-minute collage of recitation and music (most of which was composed by Myler's co-conceiver, Chic Street Man) is effective as neither an anti-war statement or as a theatre piece. It's too self-important and self-congratulatory to move, involve, or challenge on the level required for something like this to really work.
Of course, very few shows consisting entirely of one-way correspondence can be anything but dramatically inert. In most plays, monologues don't exist in a vacuum; here they can exist in nothing but. The actors recite letters from friends, letters from girlfriends, letters from mothers, brothers, nurses, children who never knew their fathers, and so on. Each letter, of whatever length, is intended to convey loss, and even the distinctive group of performers Myler has assembled can't keep the stories from eventually blending together.
There are, of course, a few exceptions. The opening scene, with an original song written and performed by the eleventh cast member, "Mississippi" Charles Bevel, is punctuated by fragments of the letters in such a way as to suggest a complex interplay between spoken and sung words that rarely materializes again later. Jing He provides two haunting renditions of letters written by young Vietnamese women - one to the father she never knew, one to all the soldiers reminding them of their legacy of love and hate. Charles Weldon delivers a lengthy speech near the end of the evening in which he traverses time and space to explore who the writer of his letter was during the war and who he became after.
As a general rule, the other eight actors - Kristin Stewart Chase, Matthew Cowles, Catherine Curtin, Zabryna Guevara, T.J. Kenneally, Carolyn McCormick, Ray Anthony Thomas, and Myk Watford - aren't really allowed material with similar dramatic possibilities. (The closest the show gets to pointed is a sequence in which a group of soldiers feel remorse for the Vietnamese people they killed.) Most of the time, the drama is as flaccid as Myler's staging, which involves little more than the actors sitting on one of ten red chairs or standing in the pools of light designer Brian Nason has strategically placed.
The lack of visual variety in the show is not in itself surprising - in how many different ways could any of this material be staged? But that's a structural question that needed to be asked at the earliest levels of conception and production, and it seemed as though the creators of Touch the Names hoped that, in presenting the letters, everything would just take care of itself. That hasn't happened, and Touch the Names proves as untouching as it does unengaging.