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A dramatic battle to bring war onto stage

August 26, 2007|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

After more than four years of bloody chaos, roadside bombs and multiple tours of duty endured by U.S. servicemen and women, the war in Iraq has yet to produce a signature American stage drama. But one candidate might be the Greek tragedy-inspired "Flags" by the pseudonymous Jane Martin, which ran for three months at the 99-seat Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles in 2005 and is headed for New York with much of that cast reunited for the occasion.

The booking is a limited engagement next month at the small off-Broadway venue 59E59, but the play's champions, which include its young Los Angeles producers, have hopes that this belated New York premiere could lead to something bigger.

Husband-and-wife actors Chris Mulkey and Karen Landry will reprise their roles as Eddie and Em Desmopoulis, a working-class couple whose lives come unhinged when a military chaplain shows up at their door with the news that their oldest son has been killed in Iraq. Mulkey, the endearingly rough-hewn character actor who is about to be seen as the new coach on NBC's "Friday Night Lights," in "Flags" plays an angry Vietnam vet and garbage man whose patriotic disposition is sorely challenged by his discovery that the military has lied to him about the circumstances surrounding his son's death.

Landry, a former member of Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater acting company who appeared on "Six Feet Under" and "St. Elsewhere," returns as the mother who must accept the unthinkable while wrangling an inconsolable reformed alcoholic husband from "going postal." A four-member chorus intrudes to comment on the events as news footage of the war and media coverage play in the background.

The strange case of Jane Martin

The play was commissioned by the Guthrie in 2003, but because of scheduling conflicts was given its first staging in 2004 at Minneapolis' Mixed Blood Theater, where Mulkey and Landry created the roles of Eddie and Em. Considering its topicality, generally good notices and successful run at the Odyssey, the question arises why no other theater, in New York or elsewhere, has found a space for "Flags" in the last two years.

Steven Klein, the 31-year-old staff producer at L.A.'s Black Dahlia Theatre who is producing "Flags" under his separate Firefly Theater banner with business partner Ryan Johnston, believes the reason has largely to do with the strange case of Jane Martin. While most playwrights are eagerly competing to get their works seen and staged, "Jane Martin" remains an enigmatic persona shielding a writer who doesn't want his or her true identity known and whose unnamed agent is said to live in rural Kentucky and be nearly unreachable.

Many in the theater have long believed Martin to be Jon Jory, the former head of the Actors Theater of Louisville who established that theater's celebrated New American Play Festival and who has taught in the drama department at the University of Washington since 2000. Yet Jory, who coincidentally directed the premieres of all Martin's plays at Louisville and still serves as a liaison to the playwright, refuses to discuss it, and the producers and actors associated with "Flags" dutifully abide by the rules of the 26-year literary conceit.

"There's a privacy issue, and we want to respect that," says Klein, who also says, "As soon as I started telling people I wanted to get the rights to produce a Jane Martin play in New York, the Sisyphean narrative was written." His friends in the theater said it would never happen. The only Martin play ever done in New York was her first, the widely produced "Talking With," a series of monologues for women done at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1982 after debuting the year before at Actors Theater of Louisville, where most of the playwright's works have premiered.

In the intervening 2 1/2 decades, at least 10 more plays by "Jane Martin" have emerged. Two of them, "Kelly and Du" and "Jack and Jill," won the Best New Play Award from the American Theater Critics Assn. "Kelly and Du" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. But no productions in New York. All the while, Martin has never made a public appearance or given an interview.

"The assumption," says Klein, "is that Jane Martin is resentful of New York theater."

Nevertheless, with "Flags" in mind, Klein and Johnston thought, why not try? A native of Boston and a Yale graduate, Klein, in addition to producing and acting in several successful shows at the Black Dahlia, in 2004 and 2005 took Geraldine Hughes' one-woman show "Belfast Blues" to London and Belfast, banking producing experience along the way.

Raising 'Flags'

Klein first went to see "Flags" at the Odyssey because Johnston, his friend, was in the cast, playing Frankie, the younger son. He went back to see it three more times. "I loved the piece," he says.

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