Arts Desk

Critical Mass, Continued: Graham vs. Mondello vs. Klimek vs. The Great Game

Tulips_1In drama criticism, there are no victors. There are only... survivors.

Trey "Oprah, send me a meat dress" Graham opened this can of sandworms yesterday with his blistering review of Tricycle Theatre's The Great Game: Afghanistan, an epic 12-play cycle recapping 170 years of conflict and colonialism in that troubled nation.

Okay, so blistering is pushing it a little. Or a lot: "Sometimes wonderful and sometimes merely worthy and well-meant," was Trey's takeaway. In his response, Battlin' Bob Mondello expressed his sympathy for long plays in general, but opined that Tricycle hadn't shown enough imagination in terms of design or staging to make those hours (and hours) pass more quickly.

Well, those are all clear, insightful, well-articulated points. So I'll just proceed with my own observations without any cheap attempt to spike this "Critical Mass" installment with artificial friction, because Trey and Bob — I refer to them collectively as T.B., just to save time — are not spiteful drunks, and it's possible neither one of them has ever strangled a kitten just for the neanderthal thrill of it. At least not that I know of.

And So: I was sniffling and coughing and my head felt heavier and even more impermeable than usual, but I was probably fresher-eyed than my esteemed colleagues when I took my seat for Enduring Freedom, the third and final section of The Great Game, covering 1996 to 2010. I’d taken advantage of the inviting weather by walking down to the Sidney Harman Hall from Columbia Heights – nyah, nyah – which possibly explains why I wasn't as wary as Trey n' Bob of all those talking heads talking heady stuff.

I do wonder if the tween-play “verbatim” interludes, wherein the actors simply recite monologues assembled from interviews with public figures (and which will be updated as the tour progresses) are on balance more enervating than informative. But the plays they surrounded didn’t seem nearly as dry, didactic or worthy as I’d feared. (Why, yes, Tricylcle Theatre flacks, of course you may pull that quote out and slap it on your poster.)

I found the first play of Part the Third, Ben Ockrent’s Honey, particularly strong. Set during the second Clinton Administration, this one gives us a C.I.A. agent who looks nothing like Matt Damon or Angelina Jolie working semi-autonomously to try to recruit an Afghan commander as an informant. But all he has to offer is cash and some vague, shaky promises of “a relationship” with the U.S. to follow if to commander agrees to help him recover missiles the U.S. sold to Afghanistan in the 80s — but more critically, to spy on the Taliban, whose power is growing and who’re right there in his front yard.

We know we’re watching a textbook case of the sort of “intelligence failure” that permitted 9/11 to occur go down in front of us, and at the same time, I’m thinking that if I were the Afghan commander, I wouldn’t take that deal, either. So I thought Honey had the existentialist crackle of a great spy novel, wherein spookdom doesn’t look remotely sexy or exciting, but instead like this exhausting, lonely, impossible job where even when you’re successful, you're obliged to do some dodgy things. I thought Ockrent and the actors managed to evoke all of that without actually saying much of it.

The next two plays, Abi Morgan’s The Night Is Darkest Before the Dawn and Richard Bean’s On the Side of the Angels, run together in my memory . (I was medicated and leaking snot, remember.) But they both persuasively dramatized the problems well-meaning Western educators and aid groups run into working in Afghanistan, I thought.

The closer, Simon Stephens’s Canopy of Stars, was the least successful for me. I’m not certain it’s fair to complain that this account of the disconnect between the soldiers who believe they’re accomplishing something with their sacrifice and their loved ones, who think the war unwinnable, or none of our business, and just want their spouses to come home, is hackneyed: I mean, that’s a real situation that tens of thousands of people have been dealing with for almost a decade now. (Vietnam was similar but also different, because the military was not an all-volunteer force back then.)

The combatants' experience, on the battlefield and on the home front, is one aspect of the story that certainly belongs here. But it was a shame to have this whole, seven-plus-hour affair conclude with a scene — well performed though it was — between an emotionally shut-down soldier and his none-too-sympathetic wife that very closely echoes one from last year’s Iraq War film The Hurt Locker — you know, the big Oscar-winner? (Come to think of it, that scene was the weakest link in an otherwise compelling movie, too.) So, Gentlemen, I suppose we must agree to . . . um, agree? We seem to be deficient in the conflict department.

NEXT: The gloves come off and SHIT GETS REAL.

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