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In War's Shadow

Vietnam's horror lurks behind humor in two plays. Theater Review

August 24, 2000|JANA J. MONJI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Vietnam-themed bill of Terrence McNally's "Botticelli" and James McLure's "Private Wars" at the Creative Center features good performances, but both halves suffer from production and staging problems.

McNally's piece has two American soldiers, Wayne (Russell Johnson) and Stu (Garrett McNair), indulging in an intellectual game of "Who Am I?" as they wait to flush out the enemy. Wayne has in mind a famous Italian artist. Stu guesses an esoteric assortment of famous Europeans, all in vain.

McNally's grunts are obviously not the couldn't-escape-the-draft-via-college bunch or even Mr. Average Americans. The playwright makes his point about the absurdity of war by way of characters blessed with extensive cultural knowledge.

Judi O'Neil's direction lends a nice, easygoing feel to this buddy relationship. McNair and Johnson are grungy and likable--"MASH" denizens one war later, transported to a different Asian country.

But the overall production keeps us grounded in North Hollywood. Tracy Tabb's set design is a bit haphazard; the dense jungle is suggested by some bamboo, including a very dried, dead stalk in front. The video portion shows a surprisingly well-groomed and obviously female enemy who seems to be wearing a black judo top and probably couldn't survive in a tropical jungle, let alone the English ivy she wanders through.

The clumsiness of this final segment deflates the allure of the wry camaraderie under fire established by McNair and Johnson. It also kills McNally's intended moral punch line.

Tabb's set design of a powder-blue recreation room for "Private Wars," the second piece, is simple and understated. The story, about three Vietnam vets in the mental ward of an Army hospital, has some winning lines, but they add up to little emotional effect.

Director Clyde A. Wray allows some clunky transitions, robbing this piece of the comic snap it needs. Not all of the characters seem to inhabit the same play. Courtney Gains' portrayal of the snooty Long Island-raised Natwick is too one-dimensional in his pretentiousness. Anthony Francis Green plays blue-collar Silvio large and loud. Silvio passes the time flashing nurses as compensation for his lost virility. As the Georgia good ol' boy, Michael Vaccaro's Gateley has a steady, almost bovine calm.

Amid the clever quips, director Wray fails to hint at the shadow of tragedy in these wasted lives. That shadow--the horror of war--lurks in both one-acts, though as depicted here, the emotional darkness remains all too hidden.

BE THERE

"Botticelli" and "Private Wars," Creative Center, 11223 1/2 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 30. $12. (818) 763-0323. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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