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Contact with the Enemy
It's been three years since I encountered a scrappy young war veteran named Bill Duffy on the Ensemble Studio Stage. Paralleling playwright Frank Gilroy's own history, Duffy's long and seemingly hopeless quest to get into the Ivy League college that had fired his ambition and imagination, made for a satisfyingly comic entry in the Ensemble Studio's 1997 one-act play marathon. Now, Bill Duffy of "Getting In" (Marathon '97 Series "C" One-Act Plays) is back in a full-length new play by the multi-prize-winning Gilroy. His Dartmouth days (yes, he did get in!) are long behind him and, like his inventor, he's become a writer. While Gilroy has long mined his memories as a World War II veteran, Duffy (Christopher Murney) of Contact With the Enemy has never been able to write about his war experiences -- most particularly, his memories of coming face to face with the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Yet here he is testing the dark currents of memory with a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. And exercising his playwright's prerogative of poetic license, Gilroy sends Hank Naylor (Nesbitt Blaisdell), who happened to serve with him in General Patton's 3rd Army to visit the memorial on the same day. The two men -- Duffy short and portly with his white hair tucked into a short pony tail and Naylor a tall, lanky North Dakotan -- strike up a conversation when Naylor asks Duffy to take a photo of him in front of the museum entrance. Their meeting is one of those weird coincidences that actually do happen occasionally.
Naylor is a hail fellow well met sort of guy, Duffy more quiet and laid back. By the time the museum opens and the tour guide (Kathryn Gayner) takes them around we know that both men are married and grandfathers and that they learned about the Holocaust first hand when their unit was taken to see the first Concentration Camp (Ohrduf-Nord) the allies discovered.
When Naylor tells the guide about their having witnessed the camp, she arranges for them to be interviewed for the museum's eyewitness archives. Naylor agrees immediately, Duffy is at first reluctant, but before long both are answering the questions of the interviewer (Cynthia Hayden). Tensions are natural in a place like the Holocaust Memorial Museum but as the interview gets under way and the recollections of the men become riddled with contradictions, we sense an entirely new and different layer of unease. It becomes increasingly evident that Naylor and Duffy have troubling memories and different perspectives not only of their shocked awakening to the horror of the concentration camps, but an ambush in which their unit was involved.
Naylor becomes tearful when he tells Mrs. Grayson (the interviewer) how he stumbled away from the sight of "bodies stacked five high like cordwood" and found it hard to believe that the sun was still shining. Duffy declares that what he saw took years to register fully, that at the time he felt nothing and that he in fact hated the camp's skeletal survivors because he "didn't want to know that people could be reduced to that." It is the other layer of tense memories -- the ambush in which Duffy and Naylor's unit were involved -- that sends Mr. Gilroy's play spinning into a surprising dramatic tailspin that leaves Duffy and Naylor irrevocably changed and the audience with decidedly mixed feelings about the issues he raises about man's capacity for evil.
To go into more detail about the turn of events stirred up by this unexpected meeting and the dual interview, would be to spoil the dramatic impact of the play. Whether you agree with Gilroy's final implications or not, you will find yourself fully engaged throughout the hour and ten minutes it takes for Duffy and Naylor to renew their long ago army acquaintance, go through the museum and the interview and have their final confrontation in a nearby bar. The cast of four is excellent with Mr. Blaisdell especially riveting. Kert Lundell's simple set functions beautifully to create four locations -- the sliding doors that serve as an entryway into the museum and an elevator and the bar. That bar particularly reflects Lundell's achievements as a furniture designer.
Unlike Arthur Miller, who is continuing to make news on Broadway, Mr. Gilroy's chief successes as a playwright (he has also been a novelist and filmmaker) have been smaller, more modest plays like this and others written for Ensemble Studio -- but, as this moving if troublesome play proves, small is certainly worth seeing and is likely to linger in the mind for a long time.