James McLure's one-act Pvt. Wars made a neat splash back in 1979 when it appeared at the celebrated New Playwrights Festival at the Actors Theatre in Louisville. But between that time and now the work has run aground, having hit many of the metaphorical icebergs that are apt to sink a play, not to mention a start-up theater company and the enthusiasm of your average playgoer.
The story of three Vietnam-era veterans killing time in the mental ward of a VA hospital, Pvt. Wars is an odd choice for a young company to choose for its debut. It has neither the marquee value of a well-known play nor enough ragged energy to draw in young audiences. Nonetheless the new Horizons Repertory, which is using the Acorns Civic Theatre in Miami Beach, has staked its claim with this work. Chances are the company's members soon will be fighting their own private wars, trying to stay afloat in an environment where audiences aren't exactly flocking to live theater. Given the debut of the fall TV season any second now, which provides several great hours of comedy and drama a week despite the globs of dross that make up most of the network prime-time schedule, why should anyone leave his or her couch to pay for entertainment when you can get it at home for free? The answer, of course, is that when it works, live theater far exceeds the thrills of television. For that magic to happen, what's needed is a compelling piece, something that speaks to us about our lives, providing urgent information, spellbinding questions, controversial stories. Pvt. Wars is not that play (more on the rest of Horizons' fall season later).
Like many hits at the Louisville one-act festival, Pvt. Wars was perhaps doomed to obscurity, to languish unproduced until its author expanded it to a full-length work. There are few venues for one-acts anywhere in the nation (City Theatre's Summer Shorts in Miami is the rare showcase). As it happens the short version of Pvt. Wars originally arrived in Louisville at the request of artistic director Jon Jory, who thought the other one-act submitted by McLure, Lone Star, needed a companion piece. The double bill was well reviewed, and Columbia Pictures, which had contracted McLure to write a screenplay for another story, bankrolled a New York production of the two short plays.
Since then McLure, a sometime actor, has virtually dropped out of sight. While it may have made an enigmatic black comedy as a one-act, his longer version of Pvt. Wars is nothing short of a mess. The scenario (it can't really be said to have a story) features Gately, Silvio, and Natwick, three veterans who cross paths each day in the VA hospital's game room. Here, in the far corner of a set designed by director Edward Saunders, President Gerald Ford's photograph smiles down, far from the sightlines of the audience. This tenuous attempt by Saunders to nail down the story to a particular time period is telling. The characters aren't written as believable Vietnam vets; in fact the characters are so bland, their motivations so nonspecific, they have no authentic moods or characteristics (they could be three guys from any war, from any high school, from any mental ward). The playwright's decision to stick them in the era shortly after the Vietnam war is as arbitrary as anything else that takes place in Pvt. Wars.
Even the men are nearly interchangeable. All three come with back stories (each one cliché), but none is ever delineated beyond a superficial sketch. Gately, whom McLure may have intended to be the play's centerpiece, spends his days repairing a radio, planning to give it to a paraplegic fellow patient. His radio-repair mission, as he puts it, helps him "to get from point A to point B." Gately's wardmate Silvio suffers the psychological effects of losing his testicles to shrapnel; he spends his time flashing nurses. Natwick, a kind of token Wasp, seems to suffer primarily from being the object of Silvio's derision. One insurmountable problem with Pvt. Wars is that these men are diluted versions of characters that exist in dozens of better plays, from David Rabe's Streamers, a searing study of masculinity and violence, to Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, in which characters have their illusions rudely unwrapped for them.
McLure does not seem to have been driven by any reason to tell the stories of these particular individuals; he's just filling up time. Themes never develop, nor do story lines. Sitting through a nearly interminable two hours, I was reminded of a character in the HBO series The Sopranos who keeps wondering when his own story arc is going to begin. Compared to these fellows, Christopher Moltisanti, a small-time hood who works for Tony Soprano, has a life story worthy of a Shakespearean lead. Cast as McLure's three characters, actors Brent Williams, Oscar Isaac, and Daniel Barr don't really distinguish themselves. If anything they seem to be holding back. But I'm not blaming them: They can't really infuse personality into characters who are ciphers.
Here's hoping the future of the Horizons Repertory is more interesting than this inaugural production. Their mission statement, "to create a venue that will utilize South Florida talent in order to develop a professional nonprofit repertory company," is a fine one. There's a great deal of theatrical talent in South Florida, and my biggest frustration is that it so seldom is put to the best use. Horizons Rep has already signed up two of my favorite actors: Sharón Kremen and Lisa Morgan. The Little Stage at the Acorns Civic Theatre, where the company performs, is an underused but potentially charming site. With these good ideas going for it, it's too bad the rest of their upcoming program looks as stiflingly boring as Pvt. Wars.
In addition to works by John Patrick Shanley and Lanford Wilson, two of the dullest commercially successful playwrights writing today, Horizons is also presenting an obscure-for-good-reason Tennessee Williams play (Something Cloudy, Something Clear), and two other perennial small-theater favorites that need to be permanently shelved: Pam Gems's Dusa, Fish, Stas & Vi, and Darlene Craviotto's Pizza Man. (Let me give them a nudge in the direction of Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, Suzan-Lori Park, Hanif Kureishi, Anna Deavere Smith, Derek Walcott, David Henry Hwang, Athol Fugard, Culture Clash.) The plays Horizons has picked are the choices of young, middle-class white suburbanites who are not looking at the world around them with discerning eyes. For John Patrick Shanley, you want me to get off the couch? No thanks. I'll be at home watching Will and Grace.
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