The title of American Soldiers, Matt Morillo’s newest play, is perhaps misleading. This is not another work about life among troops stationed in the Gulf or in any other line of fire. Instead, and wisely, Morillo has set Soldiers back here on the American home front. It is a decision that makes the play's subject matter, while still somewhat muddled, accessible to audiences. Soldiers takes place fairly close to home – Hicksville, Long Island, to be precise. It follows a couple of important days in the life of the Coletti family, as middle child and eldest daughter Angela returns home to her politician brother, party girl sister and widowed father after returning from the war.
Angela’s tour was not without its scars, most of which are internal and emotional. She lost a fiancé and has her demons with which to contend. This is a concept her father, Carlo Sr., (Stu Richel), understands all too well; he, too, is a veteran, having served in Vietnam. Soldiers doesn’t dwell on what bonds these two, however. What drives the play is Angela’s decision to create a rift in the household by moving to Colorado and uprooting younger sister Marie (Julia Giolzetti), as well as her erstwhile bartender boyfriend, Hutch (Nick Coleman), with her.
Most of Angela’s opposition comes from the two Carlos in her family, her father as well as brother Carlo Jr. (Tom Pilutik). They want her to stay, but for different reasons. Carlo Sr. is worried about the fissure of his family unit. Carlo Jr. has a more self-serving, professional agenda, but it is not a ludicrous one. He is more rational than his reactionary sister.
Soldiers marks a departure for Morillo, who also directs this production at the Theater for the New City. His past works were lighter romantic comedies (Angry Young Women in Low Rise Jeans With High Class Issues, All Aboard the Marriage Hearse). This play feels a bit more substantial, not so much because of the subject matter, but because his scenes of conflict feel less redundant and more motivated.
In his previous plays, Morillo’s characters sometimes talked in circles around each other. They yelled at each other only to do so again later with no additional narrative gain. In Soldiers, however, these characters walk in circles around each other, as they should. They may live or spend massive amounts of time under one roof, but they have carved out their own routines and private lives long ago, and they find it virtually impossible to reconcile their disparate interests (or lack thereof) with one another.
Morillo hits on several subjects rife with dramatic potential – post-traumatic stress disorder, family politics, even local politics – but he spends the majority of the play merely referring to these topics, depending on the audience’s understanding that, yes, bad things happen in war and in households. By the time we meet this family, the most dramatic aspects of their lives have already happened; we’re only privy to the falling action.
Soldiers also lacks a central protagonist for whom to root. Angela’s choices hover somewhere between self-deluded and appropriate, but we’re never sure which way to feel. Is her choice to go west a solid one? How much should we invest in her?
Carlo Sr., meanwhile, only emerges as a principal character in the play’s second act. In the first he seems to be little more than a doddering man with an alcohol problem and frustrations with each of his three children. Is he supposed to be the voice of reason?
It is to the outstanding Richel’s credit that even when Carlo Sr. feels like a minor character, the naturalistic actor plays him with major gravitas. His disappointment and weariness as a struggling patriarch are palpable from the start. Coleman, for his part, is also not to be overlooked. He overcomes a rather thinly-drawn character (why he agrees to trek along to Colorado is never made explicit) with an effortless performance that reeks of machismo-laden inertia.
The remaining trio of actors has a harder time with the material. I’m still not quite sure what Marie wants or where her loyalty lies, and Giolzetti also seems unsure of how make sense of her. Pilutik, a charismatic presence in Morillo’s Stay Over, feels more untethered in Soldiers. He paces around too much, with body language that would be better attuned to a lighter, more comedic work.
Reilly has the toughest time of all, though. She plays Angela with plenty of integrity, but lacks the haunted -- and haunting – attributes necessary to give the character more conviction. The Colettis’ political and religious beliefs should play out as total heresy to Angela. She should be appalled by what she views as total pretension. Her desire to move plays like a sheltered daughter ready to spread her wings when it really is the fight of her life.
Yes, Soldiers needs work, but it is a play already headed in the right direction. With some tightening and an infusion of drama, Soldiers could become a solid, topical work that speaks to exactly where this country is right now.