Every so often I see a play that hasn’t been on my “must see” list, a play that I just happen to pick because it fits into my schedule, a play that sounds like it might be interesting but then again maybe not … and then it turns out to be something extraordinary, and I think to myself, I almost missed that!

I happened to catch Jessica Goldberg’s Body Politic because tonight’s performance of the play I’d planned to see was canceled. In its place, I had a choice between the very recently opened Body Politic and another play that’s been around longer and has gotten rave reviews.  I picked Body Politic, perhaps for no other reason than the fact that it’s playing at the Zephyr, a theater I have a particular affection for because that’s where I spent 11 great evenings or afternoons during 2006’s Season Of (Del) Shores (plays). Whatever.  I saw Body Politic tonight and WOW! This is must see theater!

Body Politic is about politics and war and love and sacrifice and beliefs and sex and the fighting in Iraq.  It takes place in a V.A. hospital and various offices and homes in L.A. and Washington D.C.  Its characters are a young Hollywood movie exec, a screenwriter posing as a researcher, an Army Captain who lost a foot in the first of two tours of duty in Iraq, the Captain’s nearly 9-month pregnant wife, and a young Army private blinded in Iraq and emotionally scarred perhaps for life.  Its characters defy Red State/Blue State stereotypes. It has no simple answers for the quagmire that is Iraq. It is edge of your seat entertainment, gripping, fast-moving, funny, and thought-provoking as it moves towards its quietly devastating final moments.

Wendy Hoffman (Kristina Lear) has come from L.A. to Washington to research and write a movie about severely injured Iraq vets.  After being put off for months, she is finally able to meet with Captain Gray Whitrock (Michael James Reed) in an attempt to convince him to let her have access to the hospital ward where amputees and burn victims are being treated. When Gray informs her that he can’t help her because he answers to someone higher on the pecking order, Wendy wonders if ultimately it’s the President she’ll have to speak to, and then he’ll tell her to try again next month.

Gray does finally agree to be interviewed about his own amputation, the recovery from which “gives kids hope,” he declares, hope that they too can no longer feel ugly, and eventually get back to leading a normal life, including a normal sex life. “So there you go,” says Gray.  “Research.  Does that help?”

The answer is yes, but not quite enough for Wendy, whose ultimate goal is still to spend time on the ward.  There’s also the matter of more than a little attraction between the Red State Captain and Blue State screenwriter. “I’ve never … someone like you,” each confesses to the other, “except maybe in high school,” Wendy adds.

Ably abetted by Chris (Anon, A Feminine Ending) Fields’ superb direction, Torry Bend’s simple but oh so cleverly designed set, and Ian Garrett’s impeccable lighting, Goldberg’s play manipulates time and space with absolute finesse.  A perfect example of this is a trio of scenes occurring simultaneously involving all four characters. To the right, Wendy reports back to young Hollywood hotshot Eric (Jeremy Maxwell) on her meeting with Gray, while to the left Gray does the same to his pretty, folksy wife Lydia (Samantha Shelton), Wendy and Gray from time to time turning center to face each other in an extension of the earlier scene in Gray’s office.  Brilliant!

Goldberg’s writing goes beyond stereotypes to create real, three-dimensional characters, a prime example of which is Gray Whitrock. No hick captain he, as he demonstrates with his knowledge of literature, whether Eastern European or Dostoyevsky. This is a man who knows well what he’s fighting for. “We think we lost our limbs for something,” he tells Wendy, “and you think we lost them for nothing.”  And later, significantly, “What happens to me if I don’t believe?”

Body Politic features a cast of four couldn’t-be-better actors, headed by Lear’s electric performance as Wendy. Some actors seem to be born spontaneous, and Lear is one of them. Every line is spoken as if for the first time; one hangs on her every word.  That she possesses beauty and grace in equal measure is icing on the cake.  

Reed is splendid as Army Captain Whitrock, in a performance revealing all of Gray’s complexities beneath the military bearing and reserve.  Shelton likewise takes the Army wife stereotype and stands it on its ear. Her Lydia is far wiser than she first appears. “Are you going to have wives in the movie?” she asks Wendy, because they suffer too, “more than people realize.”

As Eric, Maxwell has the slick superficial Hollywood honcho down pat.  What makes his work so extraordinary here is that he also portrays blinded Private Small, “Eric” unrecognizable under the bandages covering Small’s eyes.  Maxwell’s private is heartbreaking, especially when he begs the Captain to help him “do myself in.”

Completing the design team are costumer Audrey Eisner, whose clothes do indeed “make the characters,” and Fionnegan Justus Murphy, whose sound design is a standout, especially in surrounding Private Small with the sounds and voices of a hospital ward.

The Echo Theater Company’s Body Politic is a production in which every element comes together to perfection.  Its 75 minute running time leaves theatergoers ample time to spend over a post-performance coffee or drink and ample food for thought and discussion.  When I think that I might very possibly have missed it, I count myself fortunate indeed.

Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
August 1, 2008

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