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THE PROGRAM notes accompanying the two one-act plays that opened at the Loeb last night sounded forbiddingly self-serious. "Because of certain ideological predilections on the part of the director," one section read, "much of the technical work not listed was done by the cast." My god, I thought, if they're all willing to do that much work, what will they expect from an audience? At worst they would have us changing sets, at best, we might be forced into some sort of soul-baring dialectic. Feeling vaguely exhausted before the plays began, I just wanted to be left alone, to be permitted to formulate my own thoughts, to remain part of an anonymous audience.
Fortunately for my state of mind, the two plays failed to live down to my expectations. While The Last War's End proved only to be slightly diverting, The Turncoats actually managed to be entertaining. Written by Paul Hunter, a free lance writer in Los Angeles, The Turncoats is a largely factual study of a handful of GI prisoners-of-war, who refused repatriation to the United States at the end of the Korean War, choosing instead to remain with the Chinese. The hour-long play focuses of Pfc. Duane Barnholt, played competently by Douglas Stevens, as he tries to persuade a fellow prisoner to aid him in an escape. All the time, he must hold off the menacing Sergeant Kondry, the group's brainwashed leader. Kondry--a fierce, vindictive little man as acted by Daniel Chiel--is concerned above all that the priosners' solidarity is not marred before the world's journalists, who are just waiting to see a mass repatriation. Using all the psychological power at his command, Kondry is out to see that no such decision is made.
Admittedly, while The Turncoats is an entertaining play, it is entertaining in a conventional way. As directed by Paul Sprecher, with its sparse setting and straight-forward presentation, this is the stuff of which good TV drama is made. America has treated these men badly--all had been poor, suffering the resulting humiliations. Kondry, as an example, had been through a reform school, labelled "Reformed," and thrown back into society only to find he couldn't get a job. China, for them, offers material promise, but not the emotional comfort the men need. The dilemma is captured in a former farmboy (Andrew Wilking) who can't quite master the prevalent jargon. When Barnholdt goads him with stories about home, the boy shouts, "Stop talking like that or next accusation period, I'm going to criticize you. You asshole-aggressive!"
BASICALLY, though, the play remains a nicely constructed minor piece of suspense. With the quartet of actors being completed by Joe Taylor--whose slightly Southern intonation adds a relaxed counterpoint to the proceedings--The Turncoats is, what they used to call, a good little story.
The Last War's End, the first play on the bill, is subtitled "A Ritual." That gives it all away. Even though I realize rituals have been with us for a long time, I can't help but resent their current popularization. Done poorly--as they usually are--they are often just an excuse for rehashing tired banalities.
As the last war ends, we are shown a livingroom where four women of varying ages have lived through the surrounding hostilities. Their lives are empty except for that of the ten-year-old girl (Kate Soloman) who--in a single half hour--alludes to Homer, the Bible, Milton, James Joyce, and Lewis Carroll. The play smacks too much of a kind of self-indulgence that the author, David Richman, should avoid in the future. The bits of naturalistic dialogue that he does include are biting enough to be further developed in his next try.
The major difficulty with the play is that the central character, who supposedly takes up where Mother Courage left off, is miscast. Emme Davidson is simply too healthy for the role. Wrapped in black, reclining on a couch, and sentenced to deliver her lines in a self-righteous singsong, she's like Truman Capote in drag. Well, let's just say Truman Capote period, and leave it at that.
The Last War's End is ambitious but about as successful as the Paris peace talks. As the precocious ten-year-old laments, "Only the angels know peace and even they had their wars." And, as long as we are having ours, The Turncoats will remain the more interesting play of the two.
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