Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Veil of Silence
Andrew Michael Neiman has written a new 100-minute Iraq war play, boasting several very good minor characters and glimpses of humor and insight. But the central figures, a veteran and his wife, seem vastly underdeveloped, both textually and in performance. The veteran (Mr. Neiman) is stuck with a lot of glum, guilt-ridden speeches, and his wife (Natasha Toro) prods him to make even more. Though I can't pretend to be a great play doctor like Neil Simon or George S. Kaufman, allow me to say that fixing most of the problems here may largely be a matter of rearrangement. Here are some recommendations:
As it stands, that spousal pair (Aaron and Amy) are so broadminded and erudite that we quickly lose interest in whether or not they can save their marriage. It's perfectly obvious that they have all the communication skills necessary to whittle a Mount Everest of sorrows right down to a bunny slope. Aaron's post-traumatic stress disorder seems no worse than an earache, which doesn't help the story much either - nor does the fact that Amy talks like somebody's mom in an after-school special. So, Recommendation #1: He should be less thoughtful, and more angry and hysterical; she should be similarly dim and a lot more scared. Intelligence proffers too many options, and too many options are death to drama. Right now, the play is far more alive in its battlefront flashbacks than when it's at home with Aaron and Amy in the present tense.
Perhaps if their scenes were set in the privacy of a dingy bedroom, instead of a polite and comfortable living room, and a few trinkets were smashed now and then, the stakes would seem higher. And so, Recommendation #2: Change-out the comfy sofa and chair, and bring in a dresser and bed that look second-hand. Then get yourself some Precious Moments figurines and a hammer.
The "veil" of the title is Aaron's own reluctance to discuss his part in the mass murder at Fallujah, though there are also some gratuitous references to Abu Ghraib and other notorious places, which seem designed to play on an audience nerve that's nearly dead by now. Recommendation #3: Find more ways to provoke Aaron, to heighten the stress. It's a big change, but perhaps Mr. Neiman's script would have more punch if he added a subplot concerning another veteran threatening to incriminate him in some fictional Congressional hearing. Then, maybe the play would seem a lot less like talk therapy. Director Nick Curry gets a lot of things right, but never really succeeds in pressing his leading man (and playwright) to the darker recesses of the soul under the current circumstances.
To her credit, Ms. Toro does an excellent job as a librarian who artfully reminds Aaron that they both worship the same god (it's one of several high points in Mr. Neiman's script). And when we finally meet that Iraqi librarian, the play seems about to fall into place. Recommendation #4: Bring her in much sooner, by cutting some of Aaron's earliest monologs and maybe hyping his mental illness through physical action early on. From a technical standpoint, another high point in the production is the very evocative use of projections and screens for video games and war scenes. Recommendation #5: Get a lot more mileage out of that PowerPoint setup.
Rusty Gunther's performances are yet another high point, with especially fine work as a private in the platoon with Aaron; and Robert Lazenby is outstanding as a Marine sergeant, which leads us to the next possible re-write. Recommendation #6: To add tension, make Mr. Lazenby's sergeant the one threatening to implicate Aaron in the hypothetical Fallujah hearings, since the sergeant specializes in manipulation already. And Mr. Lazenby is so great on stage, he makes his role worthy of expansion.
Near the end of it all, there is a very good visit from the ghost of a fallen soldier. But subsequently, there's a tedious reconciliation between Aaron and Amy, followed by an even more tedious speech of Moral Outrage About It All. The show grinds to an absolute halt with a long, wordless purification ritual. But perhaps some climactic action might be wrung before that, from that hypothetical confrontation with that sergeant over Fallujah (see Recommendation #6). In any case, in its current incarnation, Aaron's pantomime purification is far too long for the relatively minor damage he seems to have incurred.
And finally, Recommendation #8: Fewer or faster costume changes, or more dressers to help backstage. The show boasts very good costumes, but the changes create at least four long black-outs during the story.
Judging from all the reviews out of New York these days, Broadway is even more weary of the Iraq war than the rest of us. But in those five or ten minutes when Veil of Silence manages to be funny, or evokes the spirit of the Iraqis, or is hyper-military, it's actually well worth watching.
Veil of Silence is based on a one-act play by Andrew Michael Neiman and Suzanne Renard, and produced by Veterans for Peace. The show continues through November 13, 2007 at the Black Cat Theatre, 2810 Sutton, in Maplewood, Missouri. For information, call (314) 315-5129 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.