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Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait
By Jacob Horn
Two men, Leadem (Brian Miskell) and Smith (Seth Numrich), languish in the heat of an unknown desert, waiting for anything: orders, other soldiers, and supplies. As their world dissolves into a hallucinatory blur, they come into unexpected contact with each other, ghosts from their pasts, and even strangers.
It's easy to view this play as an interpretation of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, with the endless wait politicized for a post-9/11 America. Such a comparison is certainly apt, yet Godot shouldn't be the lens through which the new play is exclusively viewed.
For one thing, Talbott's play (which he also directs) is too grounded in finite realities: his characters exist in a world that obeys expected, if inconvenient, laws with tangible consequences. Godot asks if things will ever change for its characters or if each day is doomed to repeat the last; one might say that Talbott's protagonists should be so lucky.
Enough of comparisons, though. Here, our primary focus is Leadem, sympathetically portrayed by Miskell as an awkward, distrustful young man who's been forced to grow up far too quick.
He and Smith—and, soon, a third soldier, Miller (Chris Stack)—talk about their lives back home, and particularly about girls, love, and sex. They derive what enjoyment they can from music. In one great moment, Miller teaches Leadem to do the twist, as Stack's performance delicately captures the joy of a moment within a grim context.
While Leadem comes off as inexperienced and innocent talking with his compatriots, his deeper (and darker) maturity is illuminated through his interactions with a female Serbian prisoner (Jelena Stupljanin), whose past mistreatment at the hands of Leadem's compatriots haunts the soldier.
Stupljanin's performance showcases emotional range and versatility. The play begins with her addressing the audience in Serbian; while we cannot understand her, she holds our rapt attention with the torment in her speech. When she starts speaking in English about the sexual violence she has suffered, it's almost unnecessary because her pain was already visible.
Sometimes, the interactions between Leadem and the Serbian woman seem unbelievable, but that's because they are. She's a fabrication of his mind, an embodiment of what he needs in a state of deprivation. The same goes for Leadem's mom (Kathryn Erbe) and brother (Jimi Stanton), though neither character feels as fully-realized. The brother functions as Leadem's conscience, while his mother serves as a wish-fulfillment for Smith—who has never even met the woman about whom he fantasizes.
This version of "Mom" articulates Smith's desires in a way he never would, representing domestic stability and sexual gratification, with a cold glass of water to boot. The veteran Erbe embraces the character's inconsistencies, creating a affecting portrayal of a woman who might be a total fabrication, even within the play's own universe.
That universe certainly feels engrossing, thanks to an expansive set by Raul Abrego, who has transformed the Gym at Judson into a desert bunker (you walk through sand to your seat) with the help of complimentary projection, lighting, and sound designs by David Tennent, Joel Moritz, and John Zalewski, respectively. One feels transported simply by being in the space.
The show makes the most of this immersive environment by featuring tableaux between scenes showing the characters existing within the space. Or perhaps not existing, as the case may be.
Indeed, there's plenty of ambiguity regarding what here is real and what is fantasy, what can be believed and what shouldn't be. It's possible for different viewers to come away with varying ideas of what they've seen, and that's not a bad thing. Neither aggressively emotional nor prescriptively moral, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait presents a measured, thought-provoking, and gripping vision of where today's constant state of war might lead us.
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