War is hell




Written by James L. Larocca

Directed by Donya K. Washington

Midtown International Theatre Festival (www.midtownfestival.org)

Workshop Theatre, 312 W. 36th St., 4th Floor

Equity Showcase (through August 3, 2008)

Review by Michael D. Jackson


Set in 1969 during the Vietnam War, James L. Larocca’s tremendous play, Penang, tells the story of a Navy lieutenant, Timothy Riordan (Brett Davidson), who has lost so many friends that on the eve of his release from service, he slits his wrists. What follows is his psychological recovery as aided by Dr. Leona (Ingrid Kullgerg-Bendz) who pulls the past out of Timothy slowly but surely. Larocca gives us the past by way of flashbacks.


We don’t know it right away, but the first scene depicting Timothy at his job guiding helicopters on and off the deck of his ship is the first flashback. The scene shows us one of Timothy’s worst losses as one of his best friends dies in a crash. The scene is done simply, with Timothy in a pool of light working with a phone and a radio receiver, seeing the horrific event out over the audience. An effective use of sound effects completes the mood of the scene. Next, Timothy is found in the hospital with his wrists bandaged and the play takes off from there. The rest of the play depicts the leading up to the reason behind the bandages.


Flashing back to a time of relaxation on leave in Malaysia, in the beach paradise of Penang, Timothy is found basking in the sun, where he meets Captain G. Richard “Luke” DeLuca (Peter Sabri), a Queens born and bred character who is generally in charge of boosting morale. He has a terrific sense of humor and lightens up the story considerably. The two become great friends while on vacation, touring the island retreat with a colorful local by the name of Jimmy Chen (Ben Hersey). Scenes depicting swimming, fun and frolic build to the centerpiece conversation of the play, where the two fast friends debate faith under the dark cloud of a senseless war. The age old question is asked: what kind of God allows the atrocities of war? And what about the senseless death of Timothy’s best friend back home who walked off a building and fell to his death? And why does Luke get to have the safe job of morale booster while others are fighting to their deaths?


No answers emerge, but each man’s personal faith is rattled and the two, surprisingly, find solace together one drunken night in a sexual liaison. In the morning Luke is measurably shaken by the incident and would rather pretend it didn’t happen––certainly that it did not mean anything important. However, Timothy believes the encounter was very important. Timothy’s anguish over the loss of so many particular buddies is more deep seated and his light aversion towards women only makes his sexually questioning nature underlined. However, Larocca has decided not to explain any of this, but just let it be the confusing plot point that it is for Timothy as it is for the audience. The lack of explanation is actually intriguing. Ultimately, with too many dear friends taken from him, and after attempting to take his own life, Timothy finds his release in letting his story out in the open to the doctor. It is emotionally heart wrenching and finally freeing.


The performances were uniformly excellent, though at times the acting was so quietly personal that it was difficult to catch every word. Rounding out the cast was Dave Powers, Leigh Walker Montanye and Gloria Lai in smaller roles. The design element that nearly held the production together was David Schulder’s sound, which used constant environmental sounds during the scenes and period songs that referenced the themes of the play during transitions. Alex Moore’s lighting worked wonders under limited festival conditions. No credit was given to set or costume design and these elements did not always feel complete and were only serviceable. Although Washington brought out excellent performances with the cast within scenes, the over all pace was periodically sluggish and the transitions were not choreographed with the brisk smoothness that should have been achieved in a simple production. Part of this problem is in the writing, which asks the actors and set elements to change too drastically from one scene to the next.


These little problems aside, the play was a fresh take on the war play; there was a fine cast making it work and overall it was completely engaging. Penang was the best production of the 2008 Midtown International Theatre Festival out of eight offerings this writer has seen.


Box Score:


Writing: 2

Directing: 1

Acting: 2

Sets: 0

Costumes: 1

Lighting/Sound: 2


Copyright 2008 by Michael D. Jackson


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