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A CurtainUp Review: Home of the Brave
by Les Gutman
It was over fifty years ago, with the memory of World War II still fresh in everyone's mind, when a New York audience first sat down to consider the work of a young playwright named Arthur Laurents. While there have been innumerable revivals of his famous later efforts (West Side Story and Gypsy in particular), this marks the first revisit to New York for this early play. It shows signs of age -- its own, now, and its playwright's, then. Notwithstanding, it affords an apt opportunity for reflection and, more significantly, a terrific platform for six exceptional performances by an especially capable cast.
Home of the Brave takes place in 1944, in the hospital of a military base in the South Pacific, and brings together a group of men whose paths would not have crossed but for the war. A Jewish PFC, Peter "Coney" Coen (Robert Sella), unable to walk, lies in his hospital bed as his doctor, Captain Bitterger (Jeff Talbott), works to get him back on his feet. Coney has not been injured, however. His paralysis is psychological, and the doctor, a psychiatrist, uses "narcosynthesis" to rehabilitate him.
Coney was a part of an engineering outfit that volunteered to sneak onto an island crawling with Japanese soldiers, to map it for an allied invasion. Something that happened on that island prompted Coney's condition, and since a good part of the show's dramatic tension consists of the discovery of what that is, I'm not going to give it away here.
Captain Bitterger walks Coney's mind through what he experienced. Much of the first, and better, of the two acts is a visualization of what Coney is prompted to remember: the events, the emotions and the relationships with his young commanding officer, Major Robinson (Mark Deklin), and his fellow soldiers. In particular, it focuses on the anti-Semitism of one soldier, T.J. (C.J. Wilson), Coney's reaction to it and the way his interaction with the other members of his unit, Finch (Stephen Kunken) and Mingo (Dylan Chalfy), nurtures and fuels his feelings.
It is in the characters thus developed that the play shines. Sella's difficult portrayal of Coney, physically impaired and mentally damaged, is as fastidious as it is insightful. C.J. Wilson seems physically a bit young as the play's heavy, but his performance is as mature as anyone could hope for -- a baiting, cocky unpleasantness that belies, except in its defensiveness, his own insecurity and unhappiness. Talbott is able to convey in the pivotal performance of the psychiatrist a sense not only of the steely structure of wartime health care and his frustrations, but also of his underlying, controlling compassion.
Although somewhat less is asked of them, the other three men are no less on target: Deklin is fine as the wet-behind-the-ears commanding officer -- still learning the people skills that enable him to accomplish the mission he already well understands; Chalfy exudes strength and humanity that becomes almost everyone's backbone; and Kunken is endearing as the "Arizona hayseed" who both defines and then tests the meaning of friendship.
The play is less successful in making its resolution of the complex issues it raises anything other than simplistic, convenient and tidy. Arthur Laurents already shows himself to be a keen observer here, but has not yet learned how to weave what he sees into a thoroughly cohesive dramatic fabric. You'll find yourself riveted by the "action" scenes before the intermission, but absorb the wonderful characters presented with the expectation you'll have to do your own heavy lifting in Act Two.
Design work here is generally quite nice. Evocative lighting and sound helps set designer Ellis transport us from hospital room to island jungle and back again. Except for a noisy platform that motors intrusively up and downstage after scenes begin (probably as much a criticism of Sonja Moser's otherwise quite able direction), the effect is simple and effective. Although most of the costumes don't present a great challenge -- period uniforms all around -- handling Coney's shifting appearance is an exception, and is handled most cleverly.
Take this production's strengths for what they are, and you won't be disappointed. There's plenty here worthy of further thought. Even the play's dated elements can, on contemplation, reveal more than ample contemporary resonance.