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Theater | Stage Review

Investigating Murder, Morality

'Three in the Back' sharply details dilemmas of a son on the trail of his father's killer.

April 08, 1999|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Set against the murky backdrop of arms research, espionage and military strategy, an inquiry into the murder of a weapons engineer poses chilling moral dilemmas in the West Coast premiere of promising Canadian playwright Jason Sherman's "Three in the Back, Two in the Head."

Claudia Jaffee's stark, crisp staging for West Coast Ensemble propels this notably focused and thought-provoking play as it traces the efforts of civilian Paul Jackson (Jason Broad) to solve the murder of his father, Donald (Tom Paliferro), a character loosely based on assassinated hired-gun scientist Gerald Bull.

The trail lands Paul in the cross-fire of conflicting agendas between a retiring Pentagon general (Dick DeCoit) caught in a crisis of conscience, and a slimy, low-level CIA operative (David Mark Peterson), whose idea of building intimacy is to point with pride to "the little lies that have passed between us." Through sometimes contradictory flashbacks, Paul establishes that both men knew and exploited his father's genius, but nailing down the true story proves more elusive. Even Paul's own mother (Cheryl McWilliams) has no qualms about deceiving him to achieve her own ends.

*

Though occasionally seduced into overly reverential readings, the cast proves generally adept with the particularly challenging rhythms of Sherman's quasi-realistic language. His well-crafted dialogue invites comparison with David Mamet in its suggestively trailing sentences and studied avoidance of contractions, a distinctive mix of colloquialism and formality. But unlike Mamet, Sherman is willing to let his characters voice their true convictions, not just their intentions and strategies of manipulation--at least on occasion.

Taking creative liberties with the story of the amoral Gerald Bull, who designed offensive weapons for various governments (including Iraq) without any apparent pangs regarding their possible uses, Sherman substitutes a more idealistic figure. Paliferro's sympathetic but misguided Donald is obsessed with building an antimissile defense system to bring about peace through deterrence.

This transformation helps frame Paul's journey as a moral inquest, exposing a frightening mind-set in which, as the CIA operative implacably puts it, "we are at war with every living thing in this world--and we must embrace that." Through its icy revelations, Sherman's play goads us to consider other options.

BE THERE

"Three in the Back, Two in the Head," West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends May 23. $20. (323) 525-0022. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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