Paper Soldiers

In the second scene of this Gulf War play, four soldiers, lost in their tank, alternate between panic and story-swapping. The tank driver shares a surefire tip to get lucky with a girl: take her to an off-off Broadway play, “20 bucks a ticket... the plays suck... but it’s really dark and you can score a hummer in the back row.'' I hope someone scores here because the average theater-goer isn’t likely to be otherwise much rewarded by this play. The subject of Guns, Shackles & Winter Coats is veterans’ post-traumatic stress disorder; it’s a vital and timely issue and theater offers an ideal form to explore it. This production tries its earnest best with a Gulf War veteran staggering between news-charged sets: from an unhappy home to a flashbacked battle zone, thence to a VA hospital, and finally to a homeless encampment in a New York City park. It’s a good conceit, this looking back to the still-unresolved fallout of Bush Senior’s war to emphasize the crisis of the current Bush’s reign of destruction and its direct effect on individual soldiers. But the main character here, Sgt. John Brown, is hardly an individual; his persona is as generic as his name. (Any allusion to John Brown the abolitionist is too obscure to identify.)

Sgt. Brown’s journey across the stage is driven by sad formula, unenlivened by the stale dialogue of a CNN anchor on weed (Anderson Cooper trying to channel Abby Hoffman?). Played by Chris McGuire, Brown struggles to communicate with his wife (Abigail Ziaja) in various classic scenes of alienated partnership. The origins of Brown’s sense of guilt and isolation become clear in a long, loud flashback scene where his substance abuse and poor judgment cause the death of his three subordinates (Alfredo Diaz, Richard Essig, Robbie Rescigno). Blasting battle sound effects are one of the especially painful elements of this play; their combination with the shouted agonies of Sgt. Brown throughout the performance had this reviewer reaching for earplugs.

Poor Brown flunks out of the VA hospital, where he fails to impress Dr. Elsinore Zinn (Evelyn Voura) with his symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome—she isn’t buying it, or she doesn’t have space or funds for him, it’s not altogether clear in what way she is negligent. The doctor boots him out of the hospital at the same time his wife boots him out of her life. Brown has no choice but to join the Vietnam vet panhandler (Jeff Lyons) who opens the play in his homeless camp in the park. Eventually, Brown is even exiled from the camp.

Like the script and the direction, the actors’ performances are earnest and heartfelt but largely undeveloped. Alfredo Diaz stands out with strong vocal command and Chris McGuire manages to bring an energetic physical presence to difficult solo hallucinatory convulsions.

Guns, Shackles & Winter Coats tackles a tough and significant subject and deserves credit for that but I’d rather hear directly from the individual soldiers who inspired it than from their cut-out stand-ins.

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