Tales of Novice Veterans

College journalism instructors are known to devote hours of class time to the importance of simplicity. The best story ideas, many of them say, are ones that can be explained in less than a sentence, in between gulps of a happy hour special, and still inspire immediate curiosity. That author Yvonne Latty is also a journalism professor at NYU comes as no surprise, because the basis of her book-turned-play, In Conflict, is an example of a textbook story pitch. Her motif, she says in a film clip that opens the staged work, was to do what most news reports had not: turn the spotlight on Iraq veterans. Latty's book of interviews with soldiers was published in 2006 and turned into a staged version last year at Temple University. In Conflict's cast of Temple graduates and current students traveled to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer, and has remained intact for its Off-Broadway debut. Their connection to the material and their real-life characters is jarring and memorable--so much so, that the show's double-casting occasionally works against its focus on the individual.

The narrative opens with a video of a U.S Army recruitment commercial, complete with its familiar and inexplicably rousing jingle. The play's overall message is politically ambiguous--its characters speak against both anti-war protesters and the Bush administration--but the opening carries an ironic, tragic tone onto the brief scenes of drills and combat that follow. Both the actors and most of the characters they portray are young, handsome and spirited, increasing the element of war as tragedy before the audience even hears their individual accounts.

Most of the show's two acts are devoted to monologues that recall Latty's interviews with each soldier; some sit in wheelchairs at the Walter Reed hospital, while others sit slumped on chairs at coffee shops, hotel lobbies, military cafeterias or rental apartments.

While each story is different--Latty's group of subjects included immigrants, a Native American, a college girl, a gay man and a young father, for example--most of them share a structure and mood. Whether or not these veterans admit to post-traumatic stress at the start of their interviews, each begins with an aura of tense self-preservation that dissolves into anger, sadness or desperation. "I miss my strong, healthy body," says an amputee, despite insisting in a wavering voice that she feels grateful. "I went to die for weapons that weren't there," says another veteran, his knee furiously twitching under a cafeteria table.

The narrative evolves from one monologue to the next with short montages of war photos or pre-filmed clips of Latty reflecting on her research process. The stage design, consisting of overlapping panels that flip to alternate between a stylized American flag and a map of Iraq, offers a visually powerful, symbolic element to the story, and aids with scene-to scene transitions.

The narrative arc is vague at best, however, and although one should commend Latty for including such a variety of accounts in her research, there are times when the staged work feels much longer than its actual running time of 90 minutes. A potential need for an edit becomes obvious in the second act, in which many of the actors return onstage to take on a second character. The fault is found more in the play's organization, however, than in its stories. With a larger cast and a less monotonous structure, the work might feel less dragged-out.

In the end, however, this constructional flaw carries minor weight. Each war in recent history has certainly bred extensive first-hand accounts, but Latty's work reinforces the continuing need for Iraq-specific cultural examination. Until viewing In Conflict, one doesn't quite realize how little we comprehend about this particular war.

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