By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
The town of Plantation recently seems to have become a womb for young male violence, with the most recognized wickedness to come out of this pseudo-Fitzgerald West Egg lately being the alleged bashing of homeless men in January by baseball bat-wielding teen lads. Bad, sad news all around.
But Plantation is also home to two theater companies completely unafraid to tap into such kinds of violence, or into even more terrifyingly dark territory musicals based on Tom Hanks movies. Last week, both the Public Theatre and Mosaic Theatre opened very different plays about errant boys with toys.
The Public Theatre, which recently presented the menacingly violent Barefoot Boy with Shoes On, somehow found a play to trump it, with And Then She Moved the Furniture, the first production of Miami playwright Manny Diez's chilling tale of army base domestic abuse. Here, finally, is a fresh, post-9/11 stage drama about war that truly hits home.
Public Theatre's director David Jay Bernstein certainly seems to harbor a soft spot for the antiwar military-theatrical complex. Last year he did David Rabe's Streamers, about soldiers preparing for the Vietnam War. Now his soldier is coming home from Afghanistan, and this soldier does not want to be fucked with.
Diez's graphic play is a fictional telling of a true story coming out of Fort Bragg in the summer of 2002. In the heat of that North Carolina summer, four soldiers murdered their wives, and two of them then committed suicide. To top off the violence, an army wife murdered her Special Forces husband. The resulting investigation pointed blame at histories of marital problems and stress from wartime separation, which leaves you wondering: What's up at Fort Bragg?
What's up, at least in the play, is that dysfunctional Special Forces sniper Todd Dawkins, played with unnervingly soft menace by Matt Stabile, is going on trial for beating to death his wife, Trish (Nikki Fridh). His weapon of choice is not a sniper's rifle, but the Plantation boy favorite the baseball bat. Now with blood on his hands, Todd must explain himself.
Through the play's juxtaposition of present and past, you learn all kinds of unsettling facts about life for soldiers coming home, as well as about life for soldiers' spouses. Most important, you learn about the sniper's "safe place," the den in his home, his sanctuary, which army wives are warned not to remodel while their husbands are off to war, or else face grave consequences.
Furniture is a concise and powerful play. As Todd, in prison-orange jumpsuit or desert camo gear, with a shaved head and baby face, toggles between psychopathic precision killer and the prewar boy his wife found so endearing. Like Vincent D'Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket, Todd is both innocent and insane. "When you have the target in your scope, it's a rush," this God-like killer gleams. Fridh is nothing less than brilliant as the warm, ill-starred wife Trish. Despite our fully knowing the tragedy waiting at the play's end, Stabile and Fridh work through their awry connections to keep surprising us, especially in a brutally soft rape scene that, because of the pair's talent, will haunt you for a very long time.
Nothing could be a sharper contrast than the onstage activity six miles southwest at Mosaic Theatre (twelve road minutes by handy Mapquest calculation). We all know Big, the Musical's story, based on the 1987 movie. New Jersey teen Josh Baskin (played in spritely fashion by both younger Michael Kuschner and older Michael Pilato) doesn't want to be a kid anymore. After a fateful carnival wish, whammo, he's a toy-company executive in Manhattan. Transgenerational high jinx and songs ensue. The musical, which was a Broadway hit in 1996, is a faithful reproduction of the film, right down to the FAO Schwarz piano dance.
However, what you may not have realized before you sat down to read Big's playbill, is that Mosaic's production is a collaboration with the American Heritage School, with a mix of professional actors and talented high schoolers stretching their best American Idol voices in the school's gigantic theater. The result is charming, if also disarming.
Big's collaboration is a parent-pleasing high school musical on steroids. Everything about the show is big, from the theater, to the elaborate two-story sets on the huge stage with its underground orchestra pit, to the big cast of adults and kids earnestly dancing their hearts out. The voices are true, even if the experience also makes you wonder what ever happened to just throwing a doghouse onstage and running You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown?
In a time-stamp analysis of these two plays, right around the time in Big that Josh and company are dancing the night away, with Josh singing, "Is tonight the night I cross the line," in anticipation of getting laid, across town crazed sniper Todd is raping his wife in the kitchen. It's not much of a stretch to think of Furniture as Big's epilogue that is, if Josh Baskin should grow up to become a Green Beret who returns home from war to terrorize his family. Let's hope not. Somewhere between the violence and the gleeful spirit of these two productions must exist a young male détente that even West Egg can live with.