Iraq war vets haven’t gotten their parade yet, but they didn’t have to wait long for their plays. It feels as though there has been more theater produced about the four and a half years of Operation Iraqi Freedom than all the decades of Vietnam-related plays combined. From Iraq-as-Greek-tragedy (Nicholas Kazan’s A Good Soldier) to war-at-home melodrama (Jane Martin’s Flags) to frontline memoir (Sean Huze’s Sandstorm), there’s been something for everyone. And this isn’t even counting such Punch ’n’ Judy critiques as David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Tim Robbins’ Embedded. Luis Alfaro’s new comedy-drama, which Playwrights’ Arena recently opened at studio/stage, is something of its own category.
The play is set locally but not really in “Los Angeles” as much as the vast lower-middle-class Illyria best called “L.A.” and which exists anywhere east of the river and south of Southgate, in a home Alfaro’s script describes as “built in the ’50s, but decorated in the ’70s.” Hero (Jin Suh) has returned here from Iraq — discharged from the Army after having ignominiously fallen off a water truck and broken his arm. Since Hero’s homecoming he’s been holed up in his childhood bedroom, whose faux-wooden blandness is somewhat mitigated by a Carmen Electra poster. Here, still wearing his boots, he hides from the grownups downstairs but heatedly bickers with his twin brother, Junior (Rodney To), a Starbucks-soaked slacker whose anti-war activities have recently included tearing up an American flag — or rather, a flag that had been printed on a grocery bag and attached to a freeway overpass.
This is an “argument” play, but not one that invites us to choose sides. A belief that the war was a worse idea than the second season of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy seems to be this play’s starting point. Up for debate are our perceptions of the war. To Junior, Iraq is a criminal waste of time and life, but it’s also a convenient focus for his youthful, inarticulate anger. Junior is also very much a creature of TV and nonliterate culture — he surfs Al Jazeera and his critique of the war hasn’t advanced beyond the bumper-sticker approach to blame everything on oil consumption.
Downstairs, the twins’ Uncle (Dana Lee) is equally dismissive of Hero’s service, yet only because the older man, a wounded Vietnam War veteran who lounges about in fatigues and cammies, doesn’t regard Iraq as a real war, but merely a “conflict.” He’s the kind of geezer who figures Iraq to be a big mall whose kid-soldiers occasionally die when their Hummers run over land mines.
For Hero’s fellow grunts, though, the war is no trip to the Galleria. (For their reality, see photographer Nina Berman’s pictures of Tyler Ziegel, a bomb-disfigured Marine, at www.ninaberman.com — click on “marine wedding” — and read about Ziegel’s fight to collect disability from the V.A. at www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/11/15/wounded.marine/index.html.) Yet the source of Hero’s wrath isn’t ideological, moral or even the result of post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s bought the notion from watching TV that war changes everything and that he’s supposed to be transformed into a ragebot, even though his injury is not combat related.
“I’m a casualty of war, dude,” he announces, as if falling off that water truck ensured him a bunk in Valhalla. Like that of his brother, Hero’s skewed worldview is also the product of the entertainment media.
“It’s like watching the first half of Hostel 2,” is how Hero describes his time in Iraq.
If anything about this play riles, it’s how uninformed and uninvolved the twins are in representing their respective positions. It would take an extremely elastic imagination to picture Junior reading a Chalmers Johnson book about American imperialism, much less going to jail for whatever his beliefs are, or even attending a teach-in. Similarly, Hero offers only a superficial macho bluster in place of patriotic passion. No wonder the brothers easily find common ground in their love of pot and hatred of the media.
Hero runs a scant 65 minutes and doesn’t even feel like a work in progress but, instead, like the possible basis of something entirely different — perhaps a calmer allegorical study of war and family, or a sitcom that has nothing to do with the aftermath of Iraq. As it is now, Hero and Junior’s dialogue sounds too similar, partly because they use the same limited vocabulary, but also because director Jon Lawrence Rivera allows them to match each other’s volume and intonation. There are also long stretches of dialogue that have nothing to do with the story, let alone the Iraq war. Mom’s (Natsuko Ohama) stoned revelry about her job at the DWP in particular just goes nowhere. Likewise, the arrival of Destiny (Carla Jimenez), once Hero’s girl, now Junior’s, comes off as merely a stab at comic relief when there’s nothing to be relieved of.
Alfaro attempts to imbue Hero with some kind of apocalyptic vision, as when he predicts a dark American tomorrow.
“The towers weren’t the end — they were the beginning — of a way of living,” he says. There’s raw material here for a deeper understanding of how this war is corroding American life even as we struggle to feel its impact. When Nixon killed the draft he cunningly took away half of America’s desire to rebel against war.
This production boasts two alternating casts — an “Asian” one (seen for this review) and a “Latino” ensemble. (The latter includes: Justin Huen, Kennedy Kabasares, Marlene Forté and Ernesto Miyares.) Even in this broad comedy, veteran actor Lee is the only “Asian-cast” member with a feel for the regret history bestows upon a character like Uncle — a soldier built in the ’40s but decorated in the ’60s. Set designer John H. Binkley’s split-level stage adequately conveys the relentlessly cheery kitsch and tchotchke-choked home, while Ron Saito’s video projections of planes and more abstract imagery lends a dreamy and sober texture badly needed by the story.
The show’s dual casting is Hero’smost interesting gambit, although, since the script itself makes no reference to its characters’ ethnicity, there’s no opportunity for them to explore what it means to be part of a new nonwhite majority in California while still serving the same old colonial imperatives. In the end, Alfaro’s brothers — Asian or Latino — define themselves not by their skin but by a war against a distant people. At least Uncle, with his steel skull plate, has been schooled by the experience of combat, while the twins merely share the fatal narcissism expressed by Robert Stone’s cynical character, Converse, in Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers.
“This is where everyone finds out who they are,” is how Converse glibly explains Vietnam to his friend Hicks.
“What a bummer for the gooks,” Hicks replies. Some things, Uncle might add, never change.
HERO | By LUIS ALFARO | Playwrights’ Arena at studio/stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Hlywd. | Through December 16 | (213) 627-4473