Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tiptoeing toward the drone wars

Confronting the drone wars: Lewis D. Wheeler and Nael Nacer. (Photo: Andrew Brilliant)

One of the frustrating things about our current theatre is its refusal to confront the really difficult questions of our age.  We wallow instead in paeans to diversity and inclusion - the hot topics of a decade or more ago; but when it comes to exploring the thorny issues of the millennium - such as the attacks on 9/11, and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - our major theaters have mostly looked the other way.

So I welcome plays like Pattern of Life (from the New Rep, but at BU's Studio 210, through this weekend only), even if they feel self-censored and circumscribed. I figure at least we're tiptoeing toward the present day; and to be honest, in terms of its sophistication and craft, Pattern is by far the best new play the New Rep has done in - well, maybe years.

So local author Walt McGough is clearly a talent to reckon with - although here you can feel that talent is in shackles (which the author has partly forged himself).  Indeed, you sense him nervously plotting each and every forward step, and it's not hard to understand why; his theme - the use of drones to eliminate terrorist targets in the Middle East - is so very fraught politically. And it's fraught politically because it's so very hard to justify ethically. Indeed, fully treating our drone war would mean either pondering American foreign policy with an honesty we haven't seen since Vietnam - or finding some clever trick that allows the audience to never quite look in the mirror.

Alas, McGough takes the second, lower road, and relies on many such tricks to see him through. Thus he never considers the full ethical dimensions of drone warfare; instead he chooses to focus on its long-distance aspects, and capacity for mortal error. Which lets him off the hook when it comes to drone proponents' Minority-Report-like delusions of moral authority - not to mention our own collusion in the political situation that has bred so much terrorism in the Middle East. (To his credit, the playwright does treat the self-defeating aspects of assassination-at-a-distance - can't we call it what it is? - but only to a calculated degree.)

Still, targeted as its vision may be, Pattern of Life stands out from the generally cowardly theatrical pack, even if McGough only dramatizes two victims on either side of a drone strike (for yes, a drone's "pilots" are its moral victims). And even if his two protagonists never meet in the flesh, but only in dreams (or in some sort of hallucinatory moral continuum).

To be sure, this circumscribed frame does make Pattern of Life feel somewhat schematic. And while McGough has given his American character, "Carlo" (Lewis Wheeler) a recognizable, individual voice, his writing for "Pakmat" (Nael Nacer), a Pakistani who loses a beloved nephew to Carlo's trigger finger, feels far less authentic; Pakmat basically sounds like a pastiche of half the authors nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

McGough does scores his successes, though, thanks in no small part to a strong cast and sensitive direction from Bridget Kathleen O'Leary (one of the more thoughtful presences at the New Rep). Carlo's slow decline (once he has admitted to himself that he did see a young boy dash into the line of fire) is harrowing, and actor Lewis D. Wheeler charts the crack-up of this cocky cowboy of the "Chair Force" with memorable honesty. Meanwhile, if Pakmat's voice isn't quite convincing, his situation is - even as he grieves, local al-Qaeda operatives move in on him - and actor Nael Nacer all but embodies both the character's overwhelming pain and that frightening pressure.

So despite its flaws, Pattern of Life counts as a small step forward for the local scene. I certainly hope it's not the last play about the drone wars, but from where I sit, it will serve as one of the first. In a better world, with a truly free theatre, I can only imagine what we might hear from playwright Walt McGough.  In the meantime, I'll keep listening to him - and you should, too.

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