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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Flora Diaz and Latih Nakli
Photo by Sandra Coudert.

Dateline, New York City, February 2008: War is bad.

What, you say? That by itself isn't news? That the knowledge that, at any given time, terrible acts are being effected on innocents somewhere is no longer enough to deserve headlines?

For better or worse, humanity has moved beyond simple denunciations such as these. And when they pop up, as they still sometimes do, the results tend to be much like Lars Norén's play War, which is being produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater: cold, clinical, and inhumane.

From the sheer number of horrors that Norén has inserted, there can be no mistaking his profound feeling for victims everywhere. Murder, disfigurement, starvation, and anxiety are among the key factors that drive War, have been carefully chosen and distributed to impress upon us the real cost of any conflict.

But in the United States, which has been flooded with war plays for the last few years and experienced no shortage of them in the five or six preceding decades, a spoonful of specificity is needed to help the medicine go down. Norén's treatment might be all-encompassing and on some level truthful, but it's also thoroughly generic, each scene and character designed existing only to make a certain point and not define the broken and blasted-away boundaries of a burnt-out world.

A mother (Rosalyn Coleman) lives in a hovel with her two teenaged children, Beenina (Ngozi Anyanwu) and Semira (Flora Diaz), scraping by on the food and water they can scrounge, when they're startled by the reappearance of the father (Laith Nakli) they believed was killed in a work camp. But if he's alive, he's not intact: He's lost his eyesight, and hasn't yet learned how to make due without it, and his two precocious daughters - who through multiple gang rapes each have grown up astonishingly quickly - are hardly better at adjusting. The upside: Father can't see his brother Ivan (Alok Tewari), who's taken up with Mother in the interim.

Rosalyn Coleman, Latih Nakli, Alok Tewari, Flora Diaz, and Ngozi Anyanwu.
Photo by Sandra Coudert.

You get the picture. Scenes about Father trying to reclaim his lost sexual territory, the girls playing out their insecurities about the familiar stranger in their midst, and even Ivan's own devastating secret play out more or less as expected. Rapid blackouts that divide the action into terse, breathless segments highlighting the appropriately topical danger help director Anders Cato bring some sense of movement to the sedate action. The understated neo-rubble look of Van Santvoord's set reminds us that comfort is not to be found in this wasteland.

None of these choices, and none of the script they support, forces you to view war in a different or more enlightened way. They merely underscore points that will be old hat to anyone whose understanding of atrocities in places like Iraq or Darfur is limited to stealing glimpses of headlines on the morning commute. While it's possible that this production's translation, by Marita Lindholm Gochman, has stripped the play of its nuances, what remains doesn't suggest much extant depth.

Even things that could potentially shock or challenge are prevented from doing so. Because both Anyanwu and Diaz are well beyond adolescence, the details about their tragic defilements come across as hokey rather than heartfelt. Diaz is also burdened with having to state her character's age as 12, which she doesn't remotely look or convincingly act. Nakli's method of acting blind involves not looking at whomever onstage is speaking, which is of limited effectiveness with a cast and stage this small.

Tewari, who has the fewest lines and spends most of his onstage time standing silently, is the only one believable as being shell-shocked by his exploding existence. He recites his lines with a quiet care, as though every word could be his last or could set off a savage reprisal, and treats his climactic speech with the dignified decisiveness most actors might bring to Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams monologues.

In short, he makes the most of the time he has, never trusting that solutions or meaning will spring up around him. He's as close to an embodiment of War's message as can be found in this production, though he has so little to do that it's easy to lose track of him. He's an unfortunate speck on the radar of a play too concerned with saying everything to spend the necessary time to say anything well.

Through March 2
Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place
Tickets online: SmartTix

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