Sunburned, punchy, and maybe starting to teeter on the precipice of madness, two soldiers are left in a sandy bunker to wait for supplies. Theater audiences might feel similarly abandoned in Daniel Talbott’s new play Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait. Talbott, who also directs, relies on episodic, nearly cinematic flashes of structural tedium interspersed with hallucinations to conjure the atmosphere and experiences of these soldiers. But unlike Annie Baker’s epic use of repetition and banality in The Flick to build layers of character and place, or Samuel Beckett’s poetry in stasis in Waiting For Godot, here the tension does not escalate and the play does not build to something truly effecting.
Smith (Seth Numrich) and Leadem (Brian Miskell) are stationed at this remote outpost surrounded by sand. They were told supplies were coming but now can’t even recall how long they’ve been waiting. Between bouts of exercise, masturbation, and rigorous debates over the education of Playboy centerfolds, things start to come apart at the seams. They start to hallucinate, seeing visions or ghosts of their past. Leadem is visited by images of a Serbian woman (Jelena Stupljanin) who was a victim of the conflict and his younger brother (Jimi Stanton) back home. Smith imagines Leadem’s mother (Kathryn Erbe) and the comforts she can bring to him. With screeching metallic sonic interludes that mark the passage of time, every day the sun beats down on them mercilessly, their supplies dwindle, and they become less and less connected to reality. Suddenly another American soldier, Miller (Chris Stack), crawls his way to the bunker and begs to be let in. Is he a mirage or a man?
From the first scene of the play, Talbott takes the story to a dark and difficult place, as we learn about the suffering this Serbian woman has experienced at the hands of soldiers. But the play is not really about that, and I’m always more than a little troubled when sexual violence against women is used as a quick shorthand for horror and the worst thing imaginable when there is no real meaningful exploration of her experience (she’s a symbol rather than a person here).
Ultimately, the characters end up in a battle between wanting to live and wanting to die. They wobble back and forth over that line as time marches on. I should have felt some gripping tension, but rather than gaining momentum and drama, the story starts so heightened it never quite leaves that plateau. Strange directorial choices (soldier ghosts exercising or something) which may have been meant to dial up the feelings of disconnection, agitation, paranoia, and panic, did not succeed in doing that. They generated minimal energy that got burned off quickly or felt like noise and not a strong guiding principle.
The actors hurl themselves into the scenario and we recognize we are meant to feel for their desperation and delirium, but that is a step apart from actually feeling for them. The conflict they are involved in is futuristic and non-specific, but the play is really about men in battle with themselves: the public lives they lead, the private thoughts they rarely share with each other, and how they cope with the unimaginable fate ahead of them. But the way the play is structured and told, I kept feeling like Talbott was presenting these ideas without a true exploration of them.
Despite the play’s rickety structure, Seth Numrich is fascinating to watch. After some high profile turns on Broadway (War Horse, Golden Boy) and the London stage (Fathers and Sons at the Donmar, Sweet Bird of Youth at the Old Vic), Numrich is back working with Talbott, a longtime collaborator, in this intimate forum at The Gym at Judson. Numrich channels a fantastic, gonzo Tom Cruise-esque manic at the start. With a bright, frenzied smile, mirrored aviators, and Cruise’s physique back in the “Top Gun” era, he makes Smith this wound-up ball of energy that starts bullying Leadem when Smith is scared or threatened. But with this role, Numrich has the opportunity to also drift into quiet reflective moments. For all his bravado and testosterone, Smith becomes wholly different with Leadem’s mother; he lets his fear, desire, and vulnerability through. Numrich throws himself 200% into the highly physical performance and especially in the tentative, tender moments with Erbe makes his character someone you can’t take your eyes off of. I was happy to watch him work (and his sensory moments of breakdown were fascinating). But even with this strong performance it was not enough to fully engage me in the play itself.
Chris Stack injects a much needed jolt into the proceedings when his character arrives and Stack brings a joviality and humanity to the role. Though I really liked Brian Miskell in The Undeniable Sound of Right Now, his performance here is so understated that it gets a bit lost in the proceedings.
The bleak, sandy outpost was well-rendered by set designer Raul Abrego. The projections by David Tennent never quite had the effect of setting the sense of place or added much to the delirium. I thought the sound design by John Zalewski was evocative but I wished Talbott’s direction had been able to use all these elements to create an escalating sense of dramatic crisis.