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A Soldierís Play

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

There are shadows aplenty in the revival of A Soldierís Play that just opened at Second Stage. Yes, it begins in shadows: In the opening moments, we donít so much see as sense a drunken black sergeant staggering across the stage, shouting nearly incoherently, and we donít so much hear as feel the gunshot that soon after ends his rambling and his life.

But itís not so much what we see and hear (or donít see and hear) in the opening scene that defines this production of Charles Fullerís potentially powerful play: itís everything else we fail to experience throughout. While director Jo Bonney and her cast perform their duties with efficiency, economy, and even ťlan, the most they can do is call attention to the even darker shadows under which theyíre all operating: the original 1981 production and the 1984 film (titled A Soldierís Story).

While Bonneyís production isnít wanting for star power - Taye Diggs and Anthony Mackie are part of the company - it never generates the heat and passion necessary for a show that distills the racial turmoil of an era (and an armed service) into 12 men in and around a black troop during World War II. While no mistakes - grazing or glaring - are clearly in evidence here, nor is there much of distinction which sets this mounting apart from others. Itís polished and professional, but never special; it intrigues but never moves you on a deeper level.

Without that extra layer, Fullerís play becomes almost catatonically conventional. Black captain Richard Davenport (Diggs) arrives to question the company about the death of that sergeant, Vernon C. Waters (James McDaniel), and learns that the case wonít be an easy one to solve: Waters was far from an innocent victim, and the other soldiersí motives are wrapped up in a tangled web of deceit, betrayal, and pride thatís not easily sorted out.

Yes, race plays a key role in the events that Davenport uncovers over the course of his investigation. But itís not just the attitudes of the white soldiers or the troopís white captain, Charles Taylor (Steven Pasquale), that prove important: Watersís view of his men and how they comport themselves in the army and in the world is equally significant. In more ways than one, the distinction between black and white is seldom as clear as it might seem.

Fullerís play works because of its uncompromising look at all sides in the frightening game of racism; it needs a cast and production capable of producing the same violent energy so that the playís emotional and dramatic impact isnít reduced. Here, you get the sense of that primarily from Mackie as Private Melvin Peterson, a young man with his own ideas about justice and retribution; Mike Colter as Private C.J. Memphis, the blues-singing frequent target of Watersís wrath; and McDaniel, whose turn-on-a-dime portrayal deftly describes Watersís duality.

Itís in the central roles that the production most falters: Diggs is far too elegant for his role, and bears no evidence of scars he acquired on his way up through the military chain of command. Given how much is made of his rank and the way others respond to it, Diggsís overly smooth, slick Davenport feels untrue to the time and the character. Pasquale is exceedingly stiff, in a non-military way; he affects Taylorís prejudices, but never lives them.

The scenes the two share, which are usually covert (and sometimes not so covert) games of one-upmanship, donít crackle with the tension they should. Thereís no sense of unease between the two men, of equal rank but unequal standing, that should typify the conflict so central to the play. This, magnified by the power of the scenes focusing on the black soldiers, unbalances the playís racial viewpoints just enough to disrupt the showís examination of racism between - and within - races.

Bonneyís production, on the whole, is never poor: Itís paced well; Neil Patelís semicircular void of a set, suggesting at once barracks and a prison, is an imposing success; and David Zinnís costumes and David Weinerís lights are no less accomplished. If, unlike the truth about Watersís murder, Fullerís message about the complicity of everyone involved in the folly of racism is never obscured, itís also never amplified, projected, or illuminated by anything else here. You can find it if youíre looking for it, but not paying careful attention could easily leave you in the dark.

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A Soldierís Play
Through November 13
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
Tickets: 212.246.4422 or 800.766.6048