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There are thousands of stories written about the Wall—tens of thousands—but there seem to be fewer plays. Paris Barclay has had trouble finding one, in any case: His One Red Flower isn’t a musical so much as a memorial, one that demonstrates rather less simple integrity than Maya Lin’s black granite chevron.
It’s not that’s it’s one-dimensional, exactly, or that it tries to brush off the difficult questions. Indeed, Barclay’s story and songs, derived from letters and poems written by dozens of veterans, want to tangle us in the individual narratives of Vietnam, in the conflicting impulses of honorable patriotism and simple humanity that make the war’s stories so troubling still. The trouble isn’t that One Red Flower tries to be overly simplistic about a war that defies simplification. It’s that it’s not terribly good at complexity—and the subject, like the form, demands exactly that.
Barclay, for one thing, seems torn between the documentarian and the poetic impulses. The six composite soldiers (and one mother figure) that he’s distilled from 60-odd sources ricochet from believably ordinary language one moment to high-flown lyricism the next: “Be not ashamed to say you loved him, though you may or may not have always,” sings a fresh-faced kid mourning the loss of his first soldier friend. Yes, the line is drawn from a poem, but Barclay presents it in an all-too-naturalistic context, and neither play nor production supplies the cues that might make the juxtaposition work. He lifts other strangely formal passages, too, and oddly well-formed sentences, using them to nudge along storylines about a private captured by the Viet Cong, a medic whose conscience had him questioning the war from the start, a gung-ho redneck who lives for “mud and blood and water,” and so on. The disconnect between the confusion of these men’s experience and the clarity of their language is part of why none of Barclay’s men feel quite whole; he’s formed them from fragments of real men’s lives, but they all wear their maker’s mark more prominently than any identity of their own.
The songs are pedestrian power-pop, repetitive and interchangeable aside from one or two singular moments that are all the more startling for their relative rarity—the haunted dissonances, for instance, that echo behind a soldier’s pained discovery that “Mother, I am cursed” (a sobering reference not to bad luck but to the virulent reaction that greeted too many Vietnam vets returning stateside). Most numbers lack that kind of sophistication—and too many go on longer than their thin conceits warrant. (“Free,” which refers not to liberty but to postage, makes its dubious point in roughly 35 seconds.)
And uncertain dramaturgy makes for a train wreck of an Act 1 finale: The biting “I Don’t Understand This War,” in which simmering fears erupt among the tightknit unit, is followed hard by “4:16 AM,” in which everyone’s questions about the American presence in Vietnam are swept away by news of an American presence on…the moon. Barclay probably means it as an ironic comment on the booboisie’s penchant for forgetting ugly truths when a rally-round-the-flag distraction presents itself, but at the Signature Theatre the moment plays as undiluted, unvarnished jingoism: Everybody salutes, sings lines about “questions blurring” and “something…stirring,” and the play’s moral center of gravity discovers that though “you could list a zillion things we’ve done wrong here…no one can tell me we don’t belong here—the Eagle landing tells me—I know we belong here!” It’s actively disturbing.
The singing isn’t, at least: Eric Schaeffer’s cast of seven (all youngish and eager, aside from the graceful veteran Florence Lacey as the play’s home-territory touchstone) belts its collective heart out, and the voices are sweet and true. Schaeffer directs stylishly and with much flash, but he’s somehow misplaced the intimate touch that infuses his best productions with so much emotion. (An exception: The devastating final scene, in which Lacey’s mother figure anchors an epilogue at the Wall, uses elegant stagecraft to illustrate the roots of a national tragedy in an individual’s loss.) Even Signature’s design team turns in unusually uneven work: Chris Lee’s lighting and Michael Clark’s projections come together in an elegant, eloquent fusion, but Tony Angelini’s sound design lets too many lyrics get lost in the rock-lite noise of musical director Jon Kalbfleisch’s band.
Audiences are cheering anyway—because like too many participants in the political discourse these days, One Red Flower wraps its flaws in the flag, counting on our sympathy for the soldier to quiet our skepticism about the mess he finds himself in. But make no mistake: Barclay’s Vietnam War memorial may be good-hearted, but it’s not especially good theater.CP