American Life, American Death
Three Plays About Race, Love, and War
The Book of Nathan
Through Dec 9.
Winner of Theater Schmeater's 2005 Northwest Playwright Competition, The Book of Nathan (by Joseph L. Mitchell) teeters precariously on the brink of irrelevance. Its little web of stories orbits around Nathan Burrell, an African-American Vietnam veteran and chaplain, visiting his estranged son (Jermaine) on death row. Both father and son are murderers—their respective crimes unfold intermittently, via flashback, on the periphery of the stage. Nathan was court-martialed for shooting a racist superior officer in Vietnam. (The catalyst was this gem: "What's the difference between a gook and a nigger? Niggers know their place... gooks are feral, unevolved.") Jermaine killed a racist cop. Nathan escaped his death sentence by turning informant against "Negro unrest" groups in the late '60s, early '70s. Jermaine sits, fierce in his convictions, waiting to die.
Meanwhile, three archetypal prison guards talk racial politics. Donnie (Andy Clawson, perfectly squirrelly) is the thoughtlessly racist white supervisor; John (Jose Amador) is the hot-headed intellectual revolutionary. Old-timer Herbie (a sweet and convincing Ron Reed) is pragmatically resigned: "Sometimes the way of the world beats the ambition out of a man." Their escalating conversation is authentic but unsurprising. Herbie is just one of those "willing colored folk who are so happy to cooperate with their own oppression," accuses John. "Is today some militant holiday I don't know about?" Donnie snarks.
The play is good: Its two-plus hours go down smoothly. The writing is solid and compelling—funny, lively, and never boring. But our accumulated dialogue on race in America is big and complicated—exhausted, though never exhaustive. An American artist who chooses racism as his topic absolutely must have something new to say, or at least a new way to say it. There's plenty going on here, but The Book of Nathan leaves it to the audience to parse its significance.
The most nuanced moment comes courtesy of the guards. Their argument turns bitter and violent, with Donnie's predictable white-victim complex: "Can't you people just forgive and forget?" Herbie responds, "Is it too much to ask you to just try and relate? Or just show some fucking compassion?" Donnie can't relate, but when no easy resolution presents itself, they decide to pretend the conflict never happened: "Let's play some cards, then." And we're back to chasing our tails—that resigned tolerance of intolerance that seems destined as our eternal default. This little poignant point is elegant and focused. It's the only one. LINDY WEST
A Dangerous Age
Balagan Theatre at Capitol Hill Arts Center
Through Dec 2.
A two-character, one-man comedy performed by Mark Pinkosh, A Dangerous Age is about a gay, middle-aged Hollywood actor who falls in love with a soldier who is on the brink of being shipped off to Iraq. The play (by Pinkosh's gay, middle-aged partner, Godfrey Hamilton) is, at times, sweet and sad: one of the lovers scared in the desert, the other marching against the war in Los Angeles, each thinking of the other. The Hollywood actor tells stories about pulling weeds by Angie Dickenson's pool, taking LSD before going onstage, and writing angry letters to the White House. The solider half of the couple is, for the most part, a cipher—the jogging, plainspoken, slightly tortured archetype of a modern gay soldier—until the charmingly awkward first make-out session on a Lake Michigan beach. Hamilton's script suffers from occasional poetic excesses (the dark wartime scenes would be more powerful if they were starker), but those are overshadowed by the comedy of the unexpected courtship and Pinkosh's charm and power as a performer. BRENDAN KILEY
An Evening of Thornton Wilder One-Acts
The Community Theatre at East Hall Theatre
Through Dec 1.
The three main aspects or psychological conditions in India's ancient Samkhya system of thought are lightness, excitement, and heaviness. Corresponding with each condition is a dietary theory of foods that make you clear, animated, or murky. Before I write this review of these Thornton Wilder one-acts, I must admit that I have just eaten foods that fall in the third, heavy category. As a result, the thoughts you are about to read did not arrive on the page with ease and speed but with the slowness of a man with chains around his feet. That said, here's the review: The performance of three one-act plays by Thornton Wilder is respectable. The first play, The Long Christmas Dinner, is by far the best of the three; Pullman Car Hiawatha is the least interesting; and one actress, Heather Poulsen , carries The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden into a strong second place. The reason why the last two plays are not as impressive as the first has nothing to do with the actors or the director (John Abramson), but the playwright himself. In sound and feel, these two plays need more work, more drafts, time, thought, and development. Against this opinion, one might argue that the playwright's style, and the style of his generation (Hemingway, Stein), was minimalistic—he wanted his plays to feel as unfinished and repetitive as life itself. But if such was the case, why does The Long Christmas Dinner feel complete? Here, the language is poetic, rather than repetitive, and the theme (the theme that dominates Wilder's work: American death) is fully developed. Without strong acting, Wilder's weaker one-act plays, like the dead, have nothing to offer. CHARLES MUDEDE