Photo by Ron Sossi

Anyone who reads the Congressional Record (and who doesn’t, these days?) knows how hot a legislative topic the American flag remains. While the Constitution may be going up in flames, many lawgivers focus their attention on fireproofing Old Glory. Taxpayers tend to take the republic’s obsession with the flag for granted — until we travel abroad and discover how little the rest of the world care about their own national banners. Jane Martin’s play, Flags (Odyssey Theater Ensemble), takes an inside-out look at our most potent national symbol, discovering in its fluttering shadow a divided neighborhood of opinion on what constitutes loyalty in time of war.

Eddie and Em Desmopoulis (Chris Mulkey and Karen Landry, who originated their roles last fall at Minneapolis’ Mixed Blood Theater) live on the kind of middle-class, blue-collar street whose residents probably vote Democratic most of the time but draw the line at Hillary Clinton; they consider themselves patriotic but, still mindful of Richard Nixon’s political manipulations, aren’t about to beat up longhairs or guys who wear earrings. Culture wars or not, these Joe and Joan Sixpacks have learned to accept a certain degree of nonconformity in America since the 1960s.

Yet war has a way of curdling civility, and when their son Carter’s tour of duty with an Army tank division gets extended in Iraq, the land of “those suicide guys,” as Eddie calls them, Em gets a bit nervous. Three weeks later, a chaplain and casualty-notification officer appear on their doorstep; Em’s worst fears have come true.

Or so they think. For while Em is barely able to absorb the news of Carter’s death, Eddie, a Vietnam vet, keeps pushing to learn the details of how his son died. Was it in combat? Was the mortal wound to the head? The chest? Was he disfigured? These are the seemingly emotional questions of bereaved parents, but, like a key turning in a lock, they open a door on an act of violence almost ritualistic in its barbarism.

The early reports are sketchy — although he was a tank commander, it seems Carter got yanked for civic-action duty, helping Baghdad residents organize a municipal trash collection. In other words, he ended his life as a garbage man — like his father. The news only gets worse — trying to instill local pride, Carter was shot hoisting an Iraqi flag and then mutilated by an angry mob. Shocked beyond rage, Eddie raises an upside-down American flag on his house — and doesn’t take it down. When the president of the United States calls to console Eddie, the old garbage man loses his profane temper; the moment is witnessed by a newspaper reporter, whose published account sets in motion the story’s ultimate tragedy.

If there’s a Grecian flavor to Flags, it comes from a chorus commenting on the mother and father’s growing travails — Carter’s hideous death, Eddie’s inability to reconcile with his other son, Frankie (Ryan Johnston), and, eventually, Em’s estrangement from Eddie. Eddie’s crime is his grief, which is prideful and has led him to curse an Olympian figure in the president. Soon the house of Desmopoulis becomes a local curiosity, then a national cause célèbre akin to the home of Elián González or the hospice of Terri Schiavo — an antiwar congresswoman comes prowling for support, Time puts Eddie on its cover. Finally, the home becomes a fortress and a bunker until the very end, when neighbors, friends and strangers alike turn against Eddie, with cataclysmic results.

Martin’s play is antiwar but not anti-military, against jingoism yet not unpatriotic. It plays out as a moderately engaging fable for a country that has forgotten David Rabe’s Vietnam coming-home nightmare, Sticks and Bones, but knows all about the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman. Flags is not political rocket science and often tilts toward melodrama. Nevertheless, director Jenny Sullivan gives it an excellent production, drawing together a committed ensemble and making excellent use of simple but elegant design elements. From Victoria Profitt’s minimal home set, bracketed by altarlike slabs of rock, and Kathi O’Donohue’s portentous lighting plot, to Marcy Froehlich’s nailed-perfect suburban costumes and Kurt Thum’s crisp sound design, this show looks and sounds like an America that tries hard to live in peace and quiet but is doomed by its national DNA to have war tear apart its illusions.

The show rests on Mulkey’s strong acting shoulders; from his graying mane to his shoes’ scuffed toes, he radiates a weathered dignity that allows us to momentarily forget how recklessly bullheaded Eddie can be. Mulkey’s performance is nothing less than stirring, a word seldom found these days in discussions about theater, much less about our national conduct.

Theater audiences will stick with Flags’ lessons on friendship and higher loyalties because of the story’s timeliness (its mention of the number of American war dead is periodically updated); they will probably give playwright John Corwin’s Navy Pier a chance because of their own personal experiences. For despite its somewhat rarefied subject of men who write fiction and the women who love them, Corwin’s drama manages to ask how far we are willing to go to honor another person’s friendship. Martin (Johnny Clark) has known Kurt (Joseph Sanfelippo) since they were English majors in Chicago, where Martin also dated a painter named Iris (Jessica Collins). Kurt’s naturally commanding physical presence, his laughable ease with women, and, above all, his commitment to reading and writing literature made him a godlike figure to Martin — and, by implication, contributed to his shy friend’s feelings of unworthiness.

Martin’s self-esteem plummets further when Iris dumps him to move to New York with Kurt, whose writing career springboards upward after The New Yorker publishes one of his short stories. Mopey Martin flees to San Francisco, where his outlook on life is reinvigorated and he suddenly stops getting rejection slips from the women he approaches in bars — but only after he assumes Kurt’s outgoing self-confidence, as well as Kurt’s actual identity. When true love comes knocking in the form of Liv (Kimberly-Rose Wolter), Martin drops the masquerade for the sake of honesty, but that’s where his problems truly start — and the play really begins.

Unfortunately, by then it’s taken a lot of lighting cues and many declarative sentences to get here. Told mostly through confessional narratives by each of the four characters (sometimes two actors do speak directly to each other), Navy Pier is neither Rashomon nor a shrink session. Instead, it comes off as an exercise in voice projection; personalities are not developed, only announced — we know Liv is phenomenal because Martin says, “She’s phenomenal!” In Howard Fine's staging in the round, the actors usually sit in one of four corners that face what looks like a giant hassock. Corwin and Fine have teamed up, it seems, to take a potentially riveting tale and bleed it of any life. There’s slim variation in tone among the cast members, as though each has some stake in ingratiating himself with the audience, but not in convincing it of anything in particular.

Part of the problem, admittedly, is the nature of the characters’ professions. It’s murderously difficult to translate the work of a story’s character if he or she is a writer or painter. We never hear quotes of the men’s prose or see a smudge of paint on Iris. But I never believed for a moment that either Iris the character or Collins the actor was a painter; simply having a character say, “I’m an artist; I paint; I had a breakthrough today,” doesn’t do it. It’s even harder for this story’s two writers — we see them “scribbling” as Liv says, but for all the focus they show, they may as well be filling out crossword puzzles.

Yet there is the kernel of a provocatively dark story here, one that makes itself known in this intermissionless evening’s second half, when a plagiarism by one of the two men is revealed, followed by an even more startling admission of what might be called artistic identity theft. Without wanting to give away this plot twist, I’ll only say that this development forces the audience to consider the criminal lengths to which some of us will go to destroy friends in the name of success — and the all-too-human acquiescence of the victims in remaining silent. And Corwin, smartly enough, resists turning his characters’ literary detective work into a story with a tidy moral verdict in which the wounded parties are reconciled and spurned loyalties rewarded. It doesn’t work this way in war, so why should it in love and friendship?

FLAGS | By JANE MARTIN | At ODYSSEY THEATER ENSEMBLE, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. | Through July 24 | (310) 477-2055

NAVY PIER | By JOHN CORWIN | VS. THEATER COMPANY at the VICTORY THEATER CENTER, 3324 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank | Through July 10 | (818) 841-5422

LA Weekly