Before we start hacking into Ward 57, the new Iraq war meditation currently chattering before the footlights at Florida Stage, let's talk about two shows that are almost nothing like it: Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire and Will Eno's Thom Paine, both of which recently played in SoFla.
Both 9 Parts and Thom Paine are one-person shows in which past dramatic events are related anecdotally to the audience. Since nothing much happens in the present tense, both shows run the risk of becoming boring. They don't, and the strategies they employ to keep things exciting ought to interest a writer like Jessica Goldberg, whose Ward 57 could use some excitement.
9 Parts of Desire is a series of monologues from a slew of Iraqi women from across recent history: a little girl, a grieving mother, an old revolutionary, a beggar, a crazy lady, a painter. The language bops frequently and unpredictably from conversational realism to surreal poeticism. This serves to keep us alert. In both forms, 9 Parts' language hits hard: the conversational parts tell stories with a minimum of exposition and zero small talk, and the poetics don't muck around with prettiness or lyrical masturbation. 9 Parts is a horror show, and whatever "message" it espouses or beauty it possesses is drawn organically from the drama of its performance. Even though 9 Parts is composed of stories told after the fact, there is great suspense in it — not just because the stories are good, but also because the play creates an aura of unpredictability that reaches far beyond the past-tense terrain of the stories it means to tell. Will the actress switch characters again? What new atrocities will be unearthed when she does? And since most of the play's women live in an Iraq that is still extant and filled with violence, there is no guarantee that the women will live to finish telling their stories. In 9 Parts, the past intersects dangerously with the present, which can make you forget you're dealing with the past at all.
Thom Paine is a glimpse inside the internal monologue of an ordinary neurotic. Because the play is honest, its ordinary neurotic looks and sounds like an extraordinary man. To listen to him talk is to hear obvious home truths spoken openly for the first time; to feel previously private pains and angers made public. And he's not just rapping with you. His patter zigs and zags with all the confused randomness of real thought. He begins stories and doesn't finish them; he tells jokes without punchlines; he goes all to pieces with the drama of a shaggy dog story. Thom never does more than talk, but the things he's saying are so weird that the weirdness itself becomes drama, every turn of Thom's discourse an event.
Though Ward 57 could be the skeleton of a very fine play, it contains few events and precious little drama. Like 9 Parts, Ward 57 seeks its punch in happenings outside the play's scope — events in wartime Iraq, where one protagonist lost a foot, and where a supporting character lost his eyesight and harbors haunting memories of having burned a children's hospital because there were insurgents inside. Unlike the events in 9 Parts, these are part of a static past that is a world away from the play's present moment, when Wendy Hoffman (Aditi Kapil), a punchy little Hollywood screenwriter, is attempting to research a screenplay at Walter Reed. There she meets Captain Gray Whitrock (Brandon Morris), the footless gent. Since she is a Hollywood liberal and he a professional military man, their views on the war are quite different.
The pitched psychic battle between bloodthirsty, war-mongering Jesus freaks and commie peacenik pussies is the great American struggle of our time, so you'd think their meeting would be interesting. It's not. It's boring. And you can't blame the actors, who are all fine — though only one character is what you'd call "fun." That's Eric, played by Sid Solomon, a Los Angeles suit who wields a cell phone like a gunslinger, who can swivel an office chair like it's a dance move. He is smarmy and sophisticated and hilarious and exactly the opposite of the people with whom Hoffman is coming into contact on the other side of the country. Another character would be "fun," if his situation weren't so gruesome — that's the unfortunate blind kid who got involved in that hospital burning, Private Anthony Small (Buddy Hardt). Small spends the play lying on his cot with his eyes bandaged up, trying to amuse himself and avoid total abject misery. He's just an ordinary, sweet, would-be fratboy who's been put in a situation too nasty to understand. To pass the time, he composes hip-hop songs. In one, he attempts to use the word "detergent" in a rhyme, and the effect Hardt rings out of the bit is goofy and lachrymose at the same time.
There's also tiny, friendly Lydia Whitrock (Bonnie Allen), the pregnant wife of Captain Whitlock — a good Christian lady, or so you think at first. Allen does a good church mouse, just like Morris does a good captain, just like Kapil does a good careerist, and Solomon does a good weasel. But there's something a little rote about everything, a sense that these characters are not people at all, but tropes who will behave precisely as you expect them to. They fulfill this expectation, and grandly.
The true drama of the characters' lives is obscured by the playwright's desire to use them as sides in a mock dialectic, as are the good questions Goldberg means to ask. When the soldiers recount their lives in Iraq, the play does not drive home their anguish: what they saw and did is a closed case, something labeled "tragic story" and filed away for the next war-is-hell letters compilation from Michael Moore. The Hoffman character fares somewhat better, if only because Goldberg can probably relate to her struggle more than to those of the soldiers, but she still never surprises you. Goldberg's best idea was in showing how both the angry left and the angry right use ideology to mask their real motives — the military folk want to save face; the media folk want to make money and stay trendy — but since these characters never communicate as real people, their motivations seem no more authentic than they themselves do. And since all they do is chatter on in a mindlessly pedestrian way, their unreality can't even make the jump to good literature.
This is why Goldberg should go see Thom Paine and why she should watch closely. You can talk about even banal subject matter — subject matter far less exciting than war — and still connect meaningfully with an audience. But you've got to get weird with it. This is a question of rhythm and imagination, but mostly it's a question of drama. "Show us, don't tell us" should be the motto tattooed on every playwright's forehead at birth. Why Goldberg forgot is anyone's guess — maybe it's because she thought she had so much to say. Unfortunately, unless you create some drama, not many folks will listen.