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Geometry of Fire

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Donnie Keshawarz, Jeffrey DeMunn, Kevin O'Donnell, and Jennifer Mudge.
Photo by Sandra Coudert.

Two things you may have thought would keep spinning on for eternity are now at last winding down: The George W. Bush presidency and the Iraq War. This means that something else, that doesn't do anyone any good but is a particular bane to theatre critics, is also in its waning weeks: the era of manipulative, exploitative antiwar dramas playing on audiences' preexisting sympathies rather than working to earn their pathos. Thankfully and sadly, Stephen Belber's Geometry of Fire, which just opened at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, might be the opening salvo of that final battle.

Belber's drama cannot - and makes no attempt to - camouflage its playwright's own ill feelings, but it's among the mature and thoughtful on the subject that's hit the boards in the last few years. This is not just because it makes a largely serious and nonjudgmental attempt to examine the psychology of one soldier, who served two tours and returned very different (and hardly better) than he left, but also because it sees the daily skirmishes at home as important as those waged on foreign soil.

The combatants here are Mel Anderson (Kevin O'Donnell), an ex-Marine struggling to return to normalcy following his service, and Tariq Al-Turki (Donnie Keshawarz), an Arab-American who's watching his father - a former Saudi embassy chauffeur - die. Mel can't escape his vicious memories of killing and (literally) defacing an Iraqi teenager, and Tariq's father has wasted away from ground contamination caused by the U.S. government burying weapons in his soil. But both of them are suffering from an even greater malady: the disbelief and disillusionment that America would let this happen.

As connected by this not-so-thin thread, the two compare and contrast in ways alternately creative and contrived. Mel is able to obtain experimental therapy for his condition, which is as likely to involve simulation of REM sleep as it is downing psychedelic drugs, while Tariq is jerked around by Pentagon brass who neither know nor care that his father's life is on the line. Both are also interested in a beautiful bartender, Cynthia (Jennifer Mudge), who finds it expectedly challenging to be a stabilizing force for one man who's been psychologically destroyed and another who sees that victim as the source of all of his problems.

That Mel and Tariq are more alike than they know is the point of the play, and neither it nor Belber are better than when making it directly. The show stumbles a bit under the weight of forced synchronicity when Mel must deal with his own father issues - his dad (Jeffrey DeMunn) is a former liberal activist who sees no virtue in his son's enlisting to take control over the chaos he saw every night on the news - and Lucie Tiberghien's leisurely direction in the earlier scenes doesn't help the play overcome the mountains of medical and bureaucratic ground it must cover to lay the framework for this multilayered story.

But as soon as Belber hits his stride in developing the disagreement Mel and Tariq, which is as emotionally viable and logically irrational as real life sometimes gets, the play gets speedier and smarter. It all climaxes in a dizzy scene deriving from Mel's all-expenses-paid ecstasy trip back to his final, fateful day in Iraq, which forces him - and us - to see his later troubles in a very different light. Not much of this information is new, of course, but the presentation is artistic and intelligent enough to help Geometry of Fire morph from a blanket diagnosis into a brand-name prescription that warns how violence and death are perpetuated in the U.S. and the Middle East alike.

O'Donnell and Keshawarz both give subtle and supple performances that avoid easy blame placing: The former's tormented deconstruction of a broken picture-perfect golden boy can be harrowing, while the latter's restraint inspires an evening-length guessing game as to what will happen when his rage finally lets loose (the results are not disappointing). Mudge is touchingly natural as Cynthia, a model of on-the-edge patience, though in other roles - including two psychiatrists and a military public-affairs specialist - she verges on ham. DeMunn struggles as both Mel's father and the inspirational speaker who ostensibly sets Mel on the path to recovery.

When Mudge and DeMunn falter, it's usually because their many characters tumble on top of one another and are presented with little change in voice or costume, making it difficult to distinguish them. This device underscores Mel and Tariq's joint affliction - the only reality in their lives is each other - but denies Geometry of Fire a broader canvas on which to depict the immediate impact of the men's personal wars. At least the global implications of their strife are sketched in bold strokes that, for once, result in something more provocative than just another paint-by-numbers interpretation of a difficult and nuanced conflict.

Geometry of Fire
Through December 14
Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix

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