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War Bonds

Where does inspiration for war literature come from? Well, mull over this recent comment reported by National Public Radio from a jaded U. S. Army sergeant stationed in Baghdad: "When I get off of patrol, I sit around base and smoke a lot of cigarettes. Then, I try to think up witty things to say to the Army when they thank me for my two years in Iraq."

Somewhere between cynical first-draft wit now simmering in Iraq (will this sergeant become a future poet or playwright?) and already published commentary by established writers about previous wars (say, poet Yusef Komunyakaa giving verse to his time as a soldier in Vietnam) lies Jonathan Lichtenstein's play The Pull of Negative Gravity, a here-and-now weighing in on real-time war at the Mosaic Theatre.

The Pull of Negative Gravity is a soldier-coming-home story set in Wales. As part of the United Kingdom, Wales is, of course, part of this bloody Iraq war just like the United States. The play was first produced at last August's Edinburgh Festival. Now, along with a concurrent production in New York City, the Mosaic is on the front, as it were, in bringing Iraq War soldier drama home to U.S. theaters.

"Bringing home" is the key phrase here, and the play's "home" is the hilly Williams family farm. Brothers Rhys and Dai (Mike Baugh and Todd Allen Durkin) and their mum, Vi (Elizabeth Dimon), struggle to ward off creditors even as they reject substantial offers from real estate speculators intent on turning the place into a pastoral getaway for upscale Londoners. The boys flip a coin to decide who joins the Army and who stays behind to manage the farm. The loser is Dai, who leaves fiancée Bethan (Claire Tyler) as he heads off to fight Tony Blair's war.

For Bethan, life at home is complicated by infidelity with Rhys (another side of brothers at war) and her nursing job at the nearby Army hospital caring for burn-injured soldiers (the region's cool air comforts them). The roar of Chinook helicopters bearing more incoming wounded drives Bethan mad. "I want to hold them with my voice," she says of the burnt men she dare not touch. But what will Dai's face be like when he returns?

Mosaic's intimate set cuts the audience into two opposing bleachers, placing you either tightly inside the squalid farmhouse interior or atop the farm's hill. It's on that hill that Bethan performs frenetic dances to the beat of the helicopters, and that the brothers, in thoughtful flashbacks, appear again and again to flip that coin. (But then you wonder why one has to go to war, anyway. To make money? Why not a construction job in Cardiff?) The play's most powerful moments come through fantasies about Dai's glorious return misconceived by the other three -- Dai in his dress uniform, kilt and all -- that precede grim reality.

Although the play may at first seem to be about a brother's return, at heart it's about Bethan's entrapment with this family, and it's not clear what's up with the girl. At the start, her mania (and Tyler's brilliantly expressive face) is sweetly disarming. Later, however, Bethan's discomfort over Dai's stricken return and then her distress near the play's end all play the same manic chord. Is Bethan truly such a mess or does Tyler, with her heavy hand and adopted Welsh accent, just play it that way? Regardless, all four give heartfelt performances, including Baugh as understated Rhys and Dimon as Vi, whose sadness comes across loud and clear as she watches her farm and family torn apart. As for Durkin's Dai, give the man a sofa, a child-proof pill bottle, a beer, and a pile of scratch-off lottery tickets, and he'll give you a wrenching floor show. "The things I've seen. Those fuckers!" he shouts at Rhys on the hilltop. "The things I've seen don't go away!"

This isn't your Pentagon's coming home story. If anything serves as local context for watching The Pull of Negative Gravity, it's the recent display, at the McDonald's Air and Sea Show (the push of positive gravity?), of Top Gun diplomacy, with its adrenaline-junkie F-15 flyovers and ground-level marine carnies in gung-ho T-shirts (as the Marine saying goes, "Pain is weakness leaving the body"). Ask the play's Dai, or perhaps most anyone in a VA hospital, though, and you might find out that pain is sometimes exactly that -- pain.

The pain of the war-transformed man has persevered as a subject -- regardless of war or genre--from Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo's 1938 novel about World War I, to the 1989 film Born on the Fourth of July, starring Tom Cruise as paralyzed Vietnam vet turned anti-war activist Ron Kovic. See, even the Top Gun comes home to protest. Yet, if there are other, bigger wartime issues you expect to hear about during The Pull of Negative Gravity -- say, the way Brits feel about the Iraq War -- think again. No "Blair-as-Bush's Beyotch" statements here. Of course, it's vital to show the pain, but the central motivating force responsible for Dai's transformation may just as well have been a car accident as a war. Those of us hungry for more, deeper revelations may have to wait until those witty sergeants get their dark scribbles into print. Hurry up, already!

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Dave Amber

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