We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
It’s not that I have a sneer reflex about expressions of patriotism. It’s not that I think domestic dramas are any less earthshaking than the larger-scale sort. And it’s not that I’m indifferent to what goes on in the still, small hell where military wives wait, dutiful and brave and scared, while their hotshot aviator husbands patrol the borders of the undiscovered country. It’s that I’m not sure why the Source Theatre thinks Linda Escalera-Baggs has made anything theatrically novel out of any of the above.
Silent Heroes introduces audiences to six Marine Corps wives waiting to learn whose husband has been killed in a fiery carrier crash circa 1975, but the introduction is superfluous: Anyone who’s ever watched a Lifetime tear-jerker has met these women before. There’s the spiteful one with the philandering husband and the brittle one who philandered once herself; the hotheaded one who once burned the flag and the rigidly well-behaved one who wraps herself in it; the wise, war-weary one who’s sat the death watch once too often and the young pregnant one struggling not to hope that it’ll be her abusive husband who doesn’t come back. Balanced? Yes. A trifle too neat? Yes.
The action—well, there’s not really any action: The play consists entirely of the alternating bouts of bickering and peacemaking that establish those stock characterizations. Director Allison Arkell Stockman and her cast (Lisa Lias, Sheila Hennessey, Misty Demory, Kimberley Cooper, Dionne Audain, and Saskia de Vries) do mostly capable work—aside from an awkwardly undercooked climax in which great psychological distress manifests itself in the shredding of a Styrofoam cup—but there’s no escaping the show’s saccharine predictability. That this wholly formulaic bit of fluff is set during the Ford presidency isn’t the problem; it’s that for a “world premiere” that’s being touted as part of a new-play repertory, Silent Heroes feels way too much as if it had been written back then.
If Silent Heroes is a thinly disguised weepie-of-the-week, Interrogation Room, the other half of Source’s winter rep, plays like an overlong Law & Order episode. You got yer working-class white detective (John Slone) partnered with yer smooth, urbane black detective (Jason E. Barrett); you got yer sensational sex murder, yer obvious red-herring suspect (Edward Daniels), yer manipulative precinct interview, and yer “shocking” second-act twist. If you’re thinking Jon Elston’s play probably isn’t the most original piece of work ever, you’ve just earned your junior-detective badge. Even the crime, a JonBenét-meets-O.J. shocker, feels derivative: When a prepubescent beauty princess is raped and murdered in a swank neighborhood, her African-American adopted brother takes the heat for the crime, though the confession we watch the cops extract from him is as dubious as their methods.
Tel Monks does nicely slimy work as the kind of villain Steven Berkoff lives to play—one of those idle rich guys smart and arrogant enough to kill out of appetite, then toy with the cops out of sheer perversity. Daniels and Slone do fine jobs as well—which makes Barrett’s thin and underpowered performance the more disappointing. Elston means for us to get a charge out of watching the character’s slow boil, but Barrett never manages more than a singularly unconvincing simmer—and he’s the guy who eventually figures everything out.
Elston grafts a bit of racial conflict and interpersonal angst onto Interrogation Room’s stock procedural frame, and if none of it is especially revelatory, he at least layers on enough character complexity late in Act 2 to more or less redeem a show that starts too slowly. Credit Steven Scott Mazzola’s spare, efficient staging for keeping things as taut as possible; understand, though, that the talky script takes twice as long to identify the real murderer as everyone in the audience will.
Consider, just as an exercise, the phrases “one-man show” and “based on stories by my grandfather.” Then, once the shudders have subsided, take a step back and admit that some solo shows work just fine. (Remember A Huey P. Newton Story?) And face it: If your grandfather were the deliciously morbid Russian writer Isaac Babel, you’d go rummaging through his trunk, too.
Alas, the Stanislavsky Theater Studios Babel: How It Was Done in Odessa feels fairly inert, mostly because it feels so very reverent.Writer-performer Andrei Malaev-Babel, the company’s artistic director, showcases several of his grandpa’s minutely observed stories of life in early-20th-century Odessa, where voluptuous Russian Jewesses tryst with impoverished translators, enflamed by wine and Maupassant, and gentleman gangsters in “chocolate coats, cream-colored trousers and raspberry boots” run ruthless shakedown rackets and stage elaborate funerals for their accidental victims. Exciting stuff—or so you’d think.
Malaev-Babel’s translations, wrangled into theatrical shape by Roland Reed, make engrossing little narratives, chock-full of humanity and warmth, but he performs them with a studied lyricism that drains the life right out of them. Babel’s Odessa scenes are little bits of hard candy, sweet and sour and clean-edged; Malaev-Babel’s carefully solemn delivery makes slow, sticky taffy of them. Director Sarah Kane pulls together a striking set (courtesy of Alexander Okun and Jessica Wade) and moodily effective sound and light schemes (by Malaev-Babel and Colin K. Bills), but she might want to goose her star once or twice. There’s nothing wrong with paying homage to a bygone place and time, but there’s nothing theatrical about preserving it in amber. CP