The first play in a three-part trilogy, Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue delves into the experience of war for three generations of soldiers in a Puerto Rican–American family. Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the book for Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights), it's a lyrical exploration of the fear, bravado and bewilderment of lonely soldiers struggling to survive the dubious battles our country has waged over the last seven decades. Hudes studied music before she took up playwriting, and that's evident in the lilt and rhythm of her writing, which also has plenty of droll moments to counter some of the story's dark sadness.
The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, an honor secured by its sequel Water for the Spoonful (which opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Feb. 11) in 2012. It's regrettable that the current production, directed by Shishir Kurup at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is notable chiefly for the poetic language of the text; onstage, events and emotions transpire in a way that's mostly flat and not all that affecting.
As the word “fugue” implies, the narrative is made up of several threads, arrayed in counterpoint. The pivotal character, Elliot (Peter Mendoza), is 18 when he joins the Marines, following in the tradition of his Pop (Jason Manuel Olazábal), a Vietnam vet; his mother, Ginny (Caro Zeller), a military nurse who met Pop overseas; and his grandfather George (Rubén Garfias), who saw action in Korea but now uses a wheelchair and has Alzheimer's.
Elliot signed up not under pressure from his family — in fact, his dad won't even speak of his own experience at war — but because he chose to do so himself. He's proud of this choice; it's given him a sense of self-worth, of becoming someone other than a kid making sandwiches in a hoagie shop. Later, home for a visit, his enlistment garners attention from the media, which spotlights him as a hero and interviews him on camera, a staged exploitative event in brusque contrast to the harsh realities Elliot has undergone.
The young man's narrative interweaves with those of his dad, his grandad and his mom, who alternately spin their own tales on various parts of a broad, stark proscenium. Little George (Pop) and George speak of suffering through jungle heat and biting cold, respectively, and all three men about the trauma of taking another man's life. George is a musician who brings his flute to Korea and on frosty nights plays classical melodies to his troubled comrades. When his son goes off to boot camp years later, George gives him the instrument in lieu of advice (but it ends up tossed in the river after Pop's best bud is shot down by enemy fire).
For Ginny, a mother, wife and caregiver, the scenario is different. After Elliot ships out to Iraq, she furiously cultivates her garden to re-create the landscape of her native Puerto Rico. As a hospital nurse, she uses touch and kisses to soothe dying and wounded men. That's how she meets Pop, whom she seduces and marries.
Speaking voluminously and passionately of her garden and the men she's loved and cared for gives Ginny some of the most vibrant and vital passages in the play, but Zeller's performance is capable rather than heartfelt or even distinctively her own. The same holds true elsewhere; notwithstanding a few effective moments, the text dominates the actors, rather than the other way around, and the result is underwhelming.
Sibyl Wickersheimer's uninspired scenic design is mostly a bare stage with a few detached panels projecting helicopters and the like, while Ginny's garden is insufficiently represented by a few potted plants. Geoff Korf's lighting spotlights each performer similarly when it might have been used more effectively to singularize the separate voices. John Nobori's sound appropriately underscores the drama.
In the final moment, a background curtain is drawn back revealing a desert panorama through which Elliot passes as he returns once more to a punishing tour of duty. It's a moving summation to a play that deserves a more distinguished execution.
Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; through Feb. 25. centertheatregroup.org.
[Editor's note: The first name of actor Peter Mendoza and last name of lighting designer Geoff Korf have been corrected. We regret the errors.]