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A CurtainUp Review
Being the potential middle child of this trilogy, Defiance arrives at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II both blessed and burdened. On the plus side, it rides into town on a wave of good will created by Doubt's well deserved super success as a provocative and superbly written new play with wide audience appeal: It won last year's Pulitzer Prize for drama; also launched at Manhattan Theatre Club's Off-Broadway Stage II, it transferred to Broadway where it continues to run. On the minus side, audiences and critics who loved Doubt, are likely to use it as a measuring stick for their expectations, especially with such surface similarities as the single word "D" titles. (Defiance actually started out as Chain of Command), and same ninety uninterrupted minute structure. That would be too bad. While Defiance is not quite as flawless as Doubt, it is nevertheless a stimulating, beautifully written drama. As such, it stands on its own, yet gains strength and richness when viewed as part of Shanley's cyclic master plan.
Having Doug Hughes and the Doubt design team again shepherd the play to its debut, far from being a cause for nitpicking comparisons, adds an exhilarating continuity to the presentation as well as the content. Defiance once again unfolds within a very specific location of a hierarchical institution, in this case the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune paralleling the author's time of duty there. That time frame moves us a decade forward from Doubt, to another set of events and social changes that exacerbate the tensions in the lives of Defiance's characters.
The Vietnam War is limping along and the recruiters are scraping the bottom of the barrel because of the lack of enlistees eager to risk their lives for a battle not worth fighting for, which includes the son of long time career officer Lt.Colonel Littlefield (Stephen Lang). Add to that a rising tide of racial incidents, "black power" rumblings among the African-American members of the Corps -- not to mentiona precursor of the increasing dominance of the religious right via a smarmy Evangelical, homily spouting chaplain (Chris Bauer). Littlefield shrewdly sees Lee King (Chris Chalk), a young black captain as someone to help him quell the racial tensions. King would prefer to stay "invisible" and feels he is being used; but, like it or not, the rules of the game make it impossible for him not to move from his Judge Advocate's post to becoming Littlefield's protegé and right-hand man.
Given the issue-laced incidents that Shanley has packed into seven terse scenes and the scrappy Littlefield's insistently can-do brand of leadership, the two men are bound for a collision that will cause even the quiet and very proper King to explode. The title comes from that explosive scene when Littlefield warns King against his act of defiance with "defiance is not enough" and King snaps back, "It's all I've got." This being a concise version of the good old-fashioned well-made play, you can expect some over-the-top emotionalism from the key players and a melodramatic surprise finale Littlefield's enlistment of King backfires through his misconduct (yes, a sexual indiscretion) and his unwisely antagonizing the chaplain, during the set-up scenes.
Shanley's writng a well-made play with a punched up melodramatic climax at a time when such playwriting is considered to be passé is in itself an act of defiant courage that proves to be still workable thanks to the fine performances of the lead players. Trevor Long's sad sack cuckolded private is somewhat less than convincing as it's unlikely that someone like this would have ever made the cut during training -- as if to prove it, in his scene in King's office he turns rather than about faces and then steps off on the wrong foot.
While Defiance doesn't leave its audience in doubt about its downbeat conclusion, it nevertheless leaves plenty to talk about, especially with another war going on that has disillusioned all still clinging to the dream of a "good, clean fight."
In case you didn't notice it in the program notes, John Patrick Shanley's biography includes an invitation to send your reaction to his email: firstname.lastname@example.org -- how wonderfully un-Bushlike! We'd welcome hearing what some of you who take advantage of Shanley's accessibility have to tell him.
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