Photo by Craig Schwartz

A character in Marc Wolf’s multipersona solo show Another American: Asking and Telling recalls how his perceptions of gays were shaped by a Bronx boyhood in which homosexuals were equated early on with pedophiles. This man, a heterosexual former Marine, visibly struggles — and evolves — with the realization that what he learned on the streets was not wisdom but dangerous myth. Deceptively funny, it’s a small moment in a big evening that nonetheless reveals its performer’s perceptiveness about a seemingly intractable conflict — the ban against gays in the U.S. armed forces.

Another American, which has come to the Mark Taper Forum from off-Broadway, is part of a familiar genre in which a writer-performer who has interviewed a range of people involved in a social issue or news event distills their personalities and presents them onstage. Under Joe Mantello’s silken, empathic direction, Wolf effortlessly brings to life 18 subjects from his tape recorder, including a pair of contrarian lesbian lovers, a nelly Vietnam vet, a Marine who notes that jarheads will do anything in the sack except kiss, and a grunt who testifies, on religious grounds, against admitting gays into the service. Wolf, attired in civvies (dark T-shirt and chinos), performs, à la Spalding Gray, on Robert Brill’s Spartan set furnished with a table, chair and microphone; towering over the performer’s shoulder is a rectangular monolith, behind it a row of bare flagpoles. Together with Brian MacDevitt’s Inquisitional lighting and David Van Tieghem’s bony sound design, the show projects a muscular, albeit paranoid energy.

If the Tectonic Theater Project’s reconstruction of Matthew Shepard’s death, The Laramie Project, was a self-congratulatory exercise in hand-wringing, Wolf’s show is the opposite: an emotionally honest account of people who love the military even though legal walls and the violence they face from straight comrades (to say nothing of the actual combat they may be thrown into) make it the most hazardous profession they are ever likely to know. Audiences will quickly recognize in Another American a cousin to Anna Deavere Smith’s great chronicle of the L.A. riots, Twilight. Like Smith, Wolf is keenly attuned to the rhythms of his subjects’ speech, discerning nuances even in their stammering and pausing — ensuring that we learn as much from their silences as we do from their words.

More important, Wolf, like Smith, never sells his people short by squeezing them for unnecessary pathos or cheap laughs. Also to his credit, Wolf presents the anti-gay opposition, although his commitment to gay inclusiveness is apparent from the start. Wolf is a likable performer who resists the temptation to be “entertaining” or to lecture through overacting. Still, his characterization of Charles Moskos makes you want to strangle the smarmy sociologist who created Bill Clinton’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and he should end his long interview with murdered sailor Allen Schindler’s mother earlier, at the point when a mournful train whistle rises in the background.

Progressives may still chafe at the show’s implicit acceptance of soldiering as just another job that presents the same discrimination and entitlement challenges as, say, law enforcement or professional sports. America’s armed forces, after all, are not just any armed forces, in the same way that its missile warheads are not just any warheads. Our military is the most active component of an imperial enterprise whose existence requires the maintenance of a surveillance state at home and a far-flung chain of fortresses and aircraft carriers abroad. But perhaps debates over whether or not our soldiers and sailors “defend liberty” (to use the Taper’s patriotic marketing language), and over the morality of joining such a military, belong to a more fervent and questioning era, one whose time lies in the receding past — or the approaching future.

ANOTHER AMERICAN: Asking and Telling Written and performed by MARC WOLF | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through September 15

LA Weekly