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THEATER BEAT

An Underdeveloped 'Soldier's Play'

August 09, 1996|JANA J. MONJI

"You're missing half the play with your scribbling," the matron to my left warned me at intermission. Yet early into the second act, she was serenading the cast with her arrhythmic snores. It was probably the most entertaining moment of "A Soldier's Play" at West Coast Ensemble. Charles Fuller's Pulitzer-winning play about the many shades and variations of racism is given a disappointingly lackluster interpretation.

An unpopular African American Army sergeant, Vernon Waters (John Freeland Jr.), is murdered outside a segregated Louisiana Army camp in 1944. The Ku Klux Klan is suspected, but Waters' white commanding officer, Capt. Charles Taylor (Dick DeCoit) believes two white officers committed the crime. An African American lawyer, Capt. Richard Davenport (Billy Mayo) is sent to investigate. Through Davenport's interviews with the sergeant's company of soldiers and a series of flashbacks, Fuller reveals unsettling intra-ethnic prejudices.

Unfortunately, Freeland never convincingly portrays a man whose spit-and-polish veneer hid his seething self-hatred, leaving Waters' Jekyll and Hyde personality unexplained. And Mayo is too pompous and smug to support any parallelism between Davenport and Waters. One doesn't sense Davenport's horror of recognition and self-reflection when Waters' special brand of genocide is uncovered. And Davenport's junkyard-dog attack attitude toward Taylor is less forgivable and sympathetic as a result.

Director Les Hanson has thoroughly misjudged the dynamics of this absorbing piece, down to the last image of a proud, unchanged and unchallenged Davenport basking in the spotlight.

Rent the movie version, "A Soldier's Story," instead.

* "A Soldier's Play," West Coast Ensemble/La Brea, 522 N. La Brea, Los Angeles. Fridays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Sept. 15. $18. (213) 871-1052. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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