"You can expect this to be the last war, and then we'll absolutely have peace ever after...how can you reject such a monumental responsibility?" That's a rallying cry not so different from slogans tossed around in America today. In fact, it's just one of many promises offered by the fictional society in Kettle Dreams, a surrealistic new drama by Gerald Zipper now playing at the Impact Theatre in Brooklyn. The psychological effects of these promises, and of fighting a war to end all wars, are the theme of the play, which takes on this dark side of the industrialized world with somewhat cloudy results.
Kettle Dreams depicts a world where new wars are beginning all the time, resulting in continuing success for a small factory that makes chemicals used in bomb construction. Arthur (Chris Sorensen) begins work as a young man in the factory, where he quickly befriends its amiable and pragmatic owner, Charley (Ron Leir). When times are hard during his life, Arthur returns to work for Charley just as his father had before him, and eventually he gets drawn far deeper into the industry than he ever intended. Torn between his love for his wife and baby son and his compulsive desire to provide a better life for them, he works harder and harder from one war to the next, until the factory and its kettle of toxic chemicals come to define his existence.
From a political standpoint, this is a play determined to make a statement, but it is seemingly unsure how to go about it. Chronicling the many repercussions of an endless war that is aiming for an increasingly ephemeral peace, Zipper's script raises some major political and moral questions. In dealing with them, he alternately lays out answers with heavy-handed authority or allows them to dissolve away like another gas bubble in the menacing, ever-present chemical vat that dominates the stage. Kettle Dreams swings wildly between styles and moods to make its points but never settles on a single one long enough to reach a satisfying form of expression. With one minute hopelessly sentimental and the next almost Brechtian in its didacticism, the audience is left uncertain where to go with each new turn in conversation.
Faced with a sweeping vision but a text plagued with inconsistencies, director Nonso Christian Ugbode and his cast have a tough time connecting all the dots. There are times when they find the right mixture and produce powerful, surreal moments, such as a fevered meeting between Arthur and representatives of the government he has contracted with to deliver explosives (including a general played with vicious determination by Michael Flood). Then there are moments when the play swings into a new mood, and the actors grope around trying to get ahold of the material again. Clarity and confusion come in about equal amounts, leaving the play tipping up and down between peaks of intense expression and valleys where the action stumbles to a crawl.
Kettle Dreams has its greatest successes when the actors grapple with the unpleasant truths of their roles in the monstrous military-industrial complex depicted onstage. Leir is particularly effective as Charley, the sadly practical factory owner who can't help growing close to his employees, even as they slowly kill themselves stirring kettles of his toxic chemicals.
Beside him, Sorensen has a huge burden to carry as he takes Arthur from the idealistic youth with big dreams to the battered industrialist of his later years, who declares at one point, "This war is fantastic! There's never been another one like it." His performance is particularly plagued by the script's many changes in tone, but the constant humanity and earnestness he brings to the part are commendable. As Arthur's wife Cherise, Erin Cunningham winds up in the middle of many of the play's more saccharin moments, which she handles with sensitivity, though she rarely has a chance to do more than plead.
When all is said and done, this is a dark play of weighty thoughts and weightier conclusions that never quite pulls off what it sets out to do. It offers a whole lot to think about, including some downright sobering political contemplations ("Our customers were the losers in this war