Usually Dependable Circus Theatricals Misses the Mark With ‘Harm’s Way’
As happens with most wars, it took a couple of years for playwrights to capture various aspects of the armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, however, it seems battle-fueled works are premiering every couple of weeks on an L.A. stage.
Shem Bitterman, best known for his work The Job, which won an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award, collaborated last year with Circus Theatricals on Man.Gov, about an arms inspector whose life is altered radically when he is suspected of leaking information to a reporter.
Bitterman and the Downtown Los Angeles theater company have followed up this season with Harm’s Way. Both plays, directed by Steve Zuckerman, are scheduled to open off-Broadway in New York next year, but this latest effort falls short as both a revelatory exploration about the war and a family drama. The plot lacks surprises and the dialogue is predictable, but there are a few memorable moments, thanks to three remarkable principal performances.
Two actors responsible for the strongest passages, including a promising first scene, are Jack Stehlin and Katie Lowes, who portray Maj. Jonathan Fredericks and his daughter, Bianca. The major, stationed at Ft. Belvoir, Va., in 2004, is an investigator assigned to the case of Nick Granville (Ben Bowen), a private accused of murdering an innocent Iraqi.
Bianca, described by her father as “simple,” has severe mental issues, some of which may be traced to her relationship with her brother Charlie, who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Bianca has a tendency to sleep with soldiers on the base to make the noises in her head go quiet. She immediately takes to Nick and convinces him to go AWOL with her.
The major’s only way to keep Bianca out of the papers, and to prevent the government from looking bad, is to find them with the help of reporter Constance (Wendy McKenna), who is after the truth about Nick’s case.
The cast is rounded out by the major’s superior, Col. Hank Davis (Eric Pierpoint) and Sammy (Josh Allen), Nick’s sergeant in Iraq.
Though Iraq serves as a backdrop, most of the two-and-a-quarter-hour play revolves around Bianca’s emotional problems and her improbable relationship with Nick. The ending is as obvious as any Shakespeare tragedy.
The war elements aren’t much more interesting, particularly when voiced by Bowen, who shouts most of his lines. This soon becomes more annoying than intense.
Though the role is written as the typical hard-nosed reporter, McKenna is impressive as Constance, adding a sense of internal conflict that makes the character more interesting. At one point, when the major breaks down crying, McKenna, fidgeting and appearing distracted, conveys the emotion of someone who knows she should care, but really doesn’t.
At times, Zuckerman’s deliberately paced direction allows the actors room to give the scenes more weight than is present in the dialogue. The simple exchanges between Bianca and the widowed major – the way she hugs him and how he smiles at her – explain their relationship more than their words can manage.
But the action scenes are clunky and forced, particularly the climax, which instead of startling, comes off blasÃ©.
Though Rachel Myers’ set is minimal, it is effective. Stark gray, textured walls, bare except for a U.S. government seal, allow for an easy change of location, and give the stage a cold, sterile feeling. The choice of music, various era war- and peace-related popular songs, is also creative.
A high point of Bitterman’s script is that he doesn’t spend too much time on a political soapbox. Instead of saying the war is bad, he tries to show the effect the fighting has had on troops. He clearly has taken elements of the crime in Harm’s Way from instances that actually occurred. But having an actor scream about how no one who wasn’t there can know how bad it was does little to inform or viscerally grab the audience.
Perhaps Circus Theatricals and Bitterman will make changes before taking Harm’s Way to New York. The concept is intriguing and worthy of better execution.
Harm’s Way runs through Feb. 9 at 2511 Wilshire Blvd., on the second floor, reservations (323) 960-1054 or circustheatricals.com.