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Oohrah!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Oohrah!
Maximilian Osinski, Cassie Beck, Sami Gayle, JR Horne, Darren Goldstein, and Jennifer Mudge.
Photo by Ari Mintz.

Of the seven characters in Oohrah!, Bekah Brunstetter’s new play that the Atlantic Theater Company is presenting at Atlantic Stage 2, only two have a military background, yet everyone wears some sort of identity-concealing costume or uniform. So, for that matter, does this well-constructed but ungrounded evening, which pretends it’s a mild-mannered glimpse at American ennui but gradually reveals itself as little more than a tightly controlled rant.

All those disguises, however, do make this elaborate masquerade of a discontentedness comedy fun to decipher, at least in the first act. That’s when we’re introduced to Ron (Darren Goldstein), an Army captain in his mid 30s, who’s just returned from his fourth tour, and Chip (Maximilian Osinski), a young Marine hoping to someday see the real action that will let him defend the country he loves. Neither, however, is quite as he seems, and before long it becomes obvious that both are chafing against their clothing: Ron in the civilian duds he’s promised to don permanently as a favor to his wife, and Chip the elegantly crisp dress blues that don’t fit him as well as they should.

The women in their lives are no more comfortable in their own attire. Ron’s wife, Sara (Jennifer Mudge), is so obsessed with keeping up with the local Joneses that she’s let her adoration for Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray guide her into the life of a happy homemaker, though she’s barely housewife material and her relationship with Ron is tenuous at best. Sara’s sister, Abby (Cassie Beck), a flight attendant, is utterly unenthused about being engaged to the doting and dorky Chris (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), an underqualified airport security specialist, but becomes enamored of Chip when she meets him on her flight. Sara and Ron’s daughter, Lacey (Sami Gayle), is a tomboy intent on joining the military herself, and her new (and scandalously short) haircut isn’t at all right for the “coming out” gala her mother has planned.

Add in Abby and Sara’s dementia-addled father (JR Horne), a veteran of Vietnam and Korea who sees everything as some sort of war, and you have a pristine picture of simmering unrest in the Army town of Fayetteville, North Carolina, with the winding-down war in the Middle East forcing together a bunch of people who are better left apart. Brunstetter is at her strongest when she’s focusing on the seeds of separation the seven are sowing - you can imagine most enemy combatants would inflict less pain on Ron than Sara when she suggests he become a manager at Krispy Kreme, or on Chip when he realizes that a minor health problem might stand in the way of his life's only ambition. The interplays between Lacey and her parents and between Abby, Chip, and Chris, are likewise smart and telling, touchingly and humorously highlighting all their mismatched priorities.

But Brunstetter’s skill at plumbing family discord doesn’t translate to larger-scale storytelling. Her second-act attempts to tie everyone’s anger and unease to the country itself seem politically desperate, and transform Oohrah! from a sensible, house-bound study of suburban agitation and into a roiling apologia most of the scenes are too flimsy to support. If Brunstetter really wants Ron to start second-guessing the U.S. to the unblinkingly patriotic Chip, she needs a more solid anchor than Ron being denied a job at Home Depot. She makes no case for why Ron’s personal loss suddenly becomes the fault of the country, making his turnabout as unbelievable as it is narratively expedient. Plus, the overall shallowness of the post-intermission action - Sara going to absurd lengths to ensure her collapsing party succeeds, Abby’s drifting from man to man as if a leaf in a stream - seems to reinforce the idea of these folks as generic white trash that the first act essentially strives to dispel.

Under Evan Cabnet’s restrained and sensitive direction, the performers ride the waves of Brunstetter’s fancy, being generally terrific in the first act and irretrievably lost in the second. The opening scene, an extended domestic gossip session in which Sara and Abby compare the lives that are increasingly crushing them, turns on glimmering work from both Mudge and Beck, the former so moving as she seems just about to crack from the strain of living up to others’ expectations and the latter brusquely shrugging off both Chris’s honest affections and her own desires for the appearance of propriety. Both actresses so succinctly explore the depths of their deceptively despondent characters, you feel you could learn everything you need to know about their world just from listening to them talk for two hours.

Neither is ever quite as good afterwards, as they slowly sink into the personalities they so honestly send up in that first scene. But they remain highly respectable throughout, as do their castmates. Goldstein is appropriately antsy as a killing machine dumped into peacetime duty; Gayle is spunky (if sometimes overly so) as Lacey, making a colorful and sometimes unsettling picture of childhood obsession; Horne is largely effective in his unforgiving role as the only one openly unable to distinguish truth from fantasy; if Osinski doesn’t ultimately melt as much as he should, he’s enough of a cipher to convince as the mysterious Chip; and Near-Verbrugghe is adroitly amusing as the stereotypical unmarryable man, even if he sometimes dips too far into caricature for his portrayal.

That Brunstetter shares his trouble is all that prevents this from being a truly bracing look at the personal and societal issues that can keep us from being who we are and need to be, even around those we care about most. In her eagerness to strip away the façade she perceives around the American mythos, she’s written two divergent plays that, like her characters, can’t coexist without friction. Oohrah! fails to satisfy because of Brunstetter’s unwillingness to either remove her own mask earlier or else never bother to wear it in the first place.


Oohrah!
Through September 27
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral