Wild Ride to Hell & Back

beast_artAt the heart of Michael Weller’s new play Beast is a metaphor that captures the deep alienation of soldiers returning from Iraq. They exist in a kind of in-between world of the living and the dead, not truly of either, so changed, both visibly and invisibly. Directed by the talented Jo Bonney and produced at the New York Theatre Workshop, Beast is the surreal tale of two seriously wounded and disfigured veterans returning to the States from a military hospital in Germany. One of them, Jimmy Cato, has suffered facial scars and a missing arm, while his best pal and sergeant, Buddy Voychevsky, seems to have suffered the loss of an arm, massive burns, and a major head injury that has left him looking like a monster with a bowling ball for a head.

Since Voychevsky, nicknamed Voych by Cato, has begun the play in a flag-draped coffin, we would assume he is dead. Cato sits and talks to him, saying, “In the ambush, you were a killing machine that day. Everyone in Bravo Company‘s talking about it.... Fucking legends, that’s us.” These men were clearly heroes, but the play reveals just how ephemeral such battlefield glory is.

As Cato sits by his dead comrade, saying good-bye, Voych suddenly emerges from the coffin, apparently not dead, but rather somehow misdiagnosed. The two men begin an odyssey of return, which like that of Odysseus is fraught with tests and terrors. Weller has subtitled his play “A Fever Dream in Six Scenes,” creating a dream/nightmare for these two returning veterans, and allowing himself to step away from stage realism into the realms of the symbolic and expressionistic.

Of course, a soldier who comes back to life is awkward. As Cato points out, Voych has no papers, and they need papers to fly out of Germany. So the first leg of their odyssey is a visit to the corrupt quartermaster Captain Adler, who holds court in the back of a girlie bar in Germany, selling arms to the highest bidder, in this case a Mr. Aziz. Adler assures him, “You know my product -- 100 per cent brand new merch, straight from our good Uncle’s military contractors to your holy hands.” The darkness of such a cynical transaction is what marks the first act of Weller’s play, a black comedy and angry satire.

These soldiers, Voych and Cato, have done their duty, served their country, believed in their mission, but once wounded they fall into a whole new nightmare of bureaucracy, betrayal, and meaninglessness. Voych’s head has been so brutally reconstructed that the cynical Captain Adler suggests casting him in a reality series called Suburban Zombie, claiming, “You have no idea how big this is. With a little viral marketing we might even create a look—Zombie Chic.”

Weller takes the two soldiers from Germany to the mid-west, to Mount Rushmore, and finally to Crawford, Texas -- the happy home of the happy President, where he offers them tuna sandwiches and bogus respect for their sacrifice.

All of the acting is excellent, but especially that of Corey Stoll as Voychevsky, Logan-Marshall-Green as Jimmy Cato, and Dan Butler as both Captain Adler and GW. Stoll’s monster is both frightening and tragic. Like any deeply disfigured human being, he is fearful of his effect in a culture so driven by surfaces. He says to a blind prostitute (who specializes in the war wounded): “I want everything like it was before Alive Day.... The day this happened. That’s what we call it. Or if they could make me invisible.” And of his body and his soul, he says, “It’s not true that pain’s the worst thing on earth. Feeling nothing’s worse.”

When Voych suggests to Cato of their war experience, “Maybe it’s all a waste,” Cato is horrified: “Don’t even think shit like that. I need some light at the end of this tunnel.” Voych responds, “We should live away from people. In the woods. Shoot animals. Eat berries. I hear Maine’s nice.” These scenes between Voych and Cato are very moving. We watch two men struggle to reconstruct their lives in a vastly indifferent world. Cato takes longer to see this, arguing, “People are walking around because of us. We don’t have to hide from anyone.” But Voych knows better. The play’s power comes from these very private moments of anguish.

One nice scenic touch (design by Eugene Lee) is that the coffin from scene one keeps showing up in various disguises throughout the play: as a couch in a Kansas home, a bed in a Motel Six, etc. That flag-draped coffin that we Americans have not been allowed to see during the Iraq War is everywhere here -- from furniture to backdrop, demanding that attention must be paid.

Unfortunately act two doesn’t live up to the stunning promise of act one. It starts to unwind in the direction of a Saturday Night Live sketch in the final long scene when the soldiers invade the home of the president. There are many laughs at GW’s expense (and I’m usually happy enough to see him portrayed as a self-loving, self-deluding puppet), but the men’s story is somehow sullied by dropping to the level of an adolescent revenge plot. They deserve something more harrowing and more truthful.

Nonetheless, I recommend Beast as a play that takes on a topic many choose to ignore: the incredible damage to individual lives this war has wrought. Voych and Cato will stay in my mind, and that’s what the best theatre aims to create: images of life that take us deeper than the fleeting, manipulated montage of television. - Victoria Sullivan

New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, through Oct. 12.

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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