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A Soldier's Play

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

There are shadows aplenty in the revival of A Soldier's Play that just opened at Second Stage. Yes, it begins in shadows: In the opening moments, we don't so much see as sense a drunken black sergeant staggering across the stage, shouting nearly incoherently, and we don't so much hear as feel the gunshot that soon after ends his rambling and his life.

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

While Bonney's production isn't 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. It's polished and professional, but never special; it intrigues but never moves you on a deeper level.

Without that extra layer, Fuller's 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 won't be an easy one to solve: Waters was far from an innocent victim, and the other soldiers' motives are wrapped up in a tangled web of deceit, betrayal, and pride that's not easily sorted out.

Yes, race plays a key role in the events that Davenport uncovers over the course of his investigation. But it's not just the attitudes of the white soldiers or the troop's white captain, Charles Taylor (Steven Pasquale), that prove important: Waters's 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.

Fuller's 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 play's emotional and dramatic impact isn't 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 Waters's wrath; and McDaniel, whose turn-on-a-dime portrayal deftly describes Waters's duality.

It's 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, Diggs's overly smooth, slick Davenport feels untrue to the time and the character. Pasquale is exceedingly stiff, in a non-military way; he affects Taylor's prejudices, but never lives them.

The scenes the two share, which are usually covert (and sometimes not so covert) games of one-upmanship, don't crackle with the tension they should. There's 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 play's racial viewpoints just enough to disrupt the show's examination of racism between - and within - races.

Bonney's production, on the whole, is never poor: It's paced well; Neil Patel's semicircular void of a set, suggesting at once barracks and a prison, is an imposing success; and David Zinn's costumes and David Weiner's lights are no less accomplished. If, unlike the truth about Waters's murder, Fuller's message about the complicity of everyone involved in the folly of racism is never obscured, it's also never amplified, projected, or illuminated by anything else here. You can find it if you're looking for it, but not paying careful attention could easily leave you in the dark.

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


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