Neither is Beast, Michael Weller's "Fever Dream in Six Scenes" that just opened at New York Theatre Workshop under Jo Bonney's direction. Of course, it's not great, either - this combination action flick, buddy flick, and political-satire flick never excites its own celluloid enough to explode off the stage. But until it devolves into an avalanche of parodic preachiness in its final scene, it's never predictable and never boring.
For a story treading the well-worn ground this one does, that's no small achievement. Weller's target is the horrors of war, especially its aftermath for those who wage it, and he attacks it with full-frontal force in his first scene. That's when Private Jimmy Cato (Logan Marshall-Green), mourning for his friend and superior officer Benjamin Voychevsky, is more than a little surprised to see Benjamin crawl from the coffin.
The ambush that "killed" him wrought particular havoc to this once-brave soldier. He lost an arm (as, for that matter, did Jimmy) and half his face, he can barely talk, and... he doesn't bleed? Since he's officially dead, he also lacks the papers he needs to get out of the German military hospital and back to the United States where he can resume his life with his wife and their newborn baby.
From the captain (Dan Butler) capable of solving such problems for the right price to Benjamin's floundering wife (Lisa Joyce) and eventually to the secluded ranch in Crawford, Texas, that all roads seem to lead to, there's no shortage of colorful characters or significant stops along the road to salvation. In each successive scene, Weller explores different kinds of corruption and alienation, whether personal or emotional, that prevent Benjamin and Jimmy from ever again leading normal lives.
The symbolism outlining their journey is anything but subtle, with talking faces of Mount Rushmore playing a crucial role in the plot, and Eugene Lee's stark set blossoming in red, white, and blue via the half-dozen flag-draped caskets that frequently stand in for various interpretations of life and death. And Weller sometimes overplays his hand, such as making Benjamin's wife's new lover (Jeremy Bobb) a purveyor of just another kind of brutality.
But for the most part, Beast is a well-measured examination of the walking dead, from zombification to spiritual resurrection. The combat-ready relationship that Benjamin and Jimmy share is smartly and sternly delineated, and Stoll and Marshall-Green are believably out of sorts as strangers in their own country. The supporting performances are variable, with Eileen Rivera a pleasure in a short bit as a sympathetic lieutenant, Joyce revealing softer edges as a blind hooker than she does as Benjamin's wife, and Jeremy Bobb alternately intriguing and annoying in a handful of roles depicting men on another side of the fringe.
Butler scores in his first authority role, but stumbles in his second - through no fault of his own. Playing the owner of that Crawford ranch, euphemistically referred to in the program by his initials "GW," he slips into too many stereotypical mannerisms commonly associated with the president so many people love to hate. The voice and the wig are acceptable but approximate, the role a too-climactic one-joke gag that goes on far longer than it needs to.
This scene also unravels Weller's careful attempts to maintain a reasonable reality within his fantasy. When Benjamin and Jimmy - who aren't exactly depicted as left-leaning - bring GW to a citizen's trial of his crimes with their verdict already decided, it's a sledgehammer and chisel after an evening of delicate acupuncture. Weller spends the entire evening proving he doesn't need such sloppily bold strokes to uncover the pain of fighters who've been forgotten; splashing such dark colors across Beast's already shadowy canvas doesn't provide the additional illumination we - and they - need to find the way home again.