Scenes from the War Here at Home

05/18/2011 1:30 PM |

Here at Home
Written by Eric Bland
Conceived by 31 Down
Directed by Shannon Sindelar

"Women don't have as much fun in wars as men, do they?" asks Holly (Hollis Witherspoon), the girlfriend of a soldier fighting in Iraq. She poses the question to her Walmart co-worker Frank (D.J. Mendel), a vet of the first Gulf War, but at this point late in the first act of 31 Down's Here at Home (at the Bushwick Starr through May 28) the answer's already abundantly clear. Frank's face glows whenever he reminisces about war, the rest of the time "it feels like mushy, borderline mushy bananas."

The new play by Eric Bland, who also appears as the homecoming soldier, is full of strange metaphors, very strong monologues, and seemingly random shifts in conversation. These devices have the effect of keeping the audience off-kilter. We're never given full access to the characters, which might have pushed the production in the direction of melodrama; our alienation from them echoes their distance from one another and the uncertainty created by the fog of war that has blanketed the home front.

All seems to be (relatively) normal through the first act, allowing for the digital projections (by Ryan Holsopple) that track the actors' movements against the nondescript strip mall wall set (by Andreea Mincic) in real time; and rumbling gunfire and explosions in between-scene blackouts. Discontented Holly finds some solace in her smoking break conversations with Frank, though they're interrupted by her boyfriend Matt's pathetic, unhinged brother Mike (Holsopple). There's a calculated coldness to these scenes, a sense of irremediable suffering and an impressionistic, almost existentialist refusal of realism that the dry humor amplifies. The pain and isolation of Anytown anomie, however familiar a subject and setting for new plays, is well evoked.

But then in the second act the bottom quite literally drops out of that stylized yet recognizable world. The set's stark gray wall pulls away to reveal a surreal Victorian garden-cum-pristine battlefield. The play's relationship to reality suddenly becomes murkier, evoking what might be a dream sequence or some afterlife limbo. The sequence's strangeness and bizarre, almost vaudevillian comedy problematizes any cathartic anticipation at Matt's imminent return, which in any case proves to be anything but a resolution.

The injuries and disorders caused at home by America's foreign wars have been treated extensively on New York stages the last few years (in Jack's Precious Moments, for instance), and Here at Home reinvigorates the subject with a powerful design and a cutting script that reveals just enough to keep the audience confused, curious, and laughing uneasily at its weird, DeLillovian eruptions of humor. "Fuck it, I will fuck it," exclaims Frank after discovering a corpse on the surreal battlefield. "I can make love to anything. I'm an American. Male. Adult. I am a desired demographic; people are gunning for me to watch their television programs."

(photos by Sue Kessler)