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A CurtainUp Review
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

We're not making a sacrifice. Jesus, you've seen this war. We are the sacrifice.Why did we let ourselves be led to extermination?
---one of the Ulster men during the Pairing scene.
Jason Butler Harner & Justin Theroux
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Unexpected relevancy has followed Frank McGuiness's play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, about a group of Ulster men who became army volunteers in World War I to keep Ulster part of England rather than Catholic Ireland. The play was a plea for understanding war's devastation as well as looking at the individuals behind the uniforms donned in a cause many in Northern Ireland disdained. The play's 1985 move from Edinburgh's Fringe Festival to London coincided with a flare-up of conflict in Northern Ireland.

Since its arrival in this country, the play has taken on yet another mantle of grim immediacy and in a very short time. When Observe the Sons of Ulster . . . played briefly at the Williamstown Theatre's Nikos Stage during the summer of 2001 the vacationing theater goers had no inkling that the horror of war would strike their homeland. The battle that has long epitomized the wasteful devastation of war was moving but not immediately relevant.

Even when Nicholas Martin mounted the play in Boston, audiences were still blissfully unaware that by the time it would reach Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater, its relevance would suddenly be thunderous and its title might be Observe the Sons and Daughters of America Marching Towards Iraq. Even the Orange sashes the eight Ulster men don as towards the end of the play as badges of courage are a grim reminder of the color used to alert us of the high probability of another homeland attack.

Mr. McGuinness has not tried to compete with the movies' ability to bring us as close to the experience of being in a war as possible. His is a lyrical, behind the battle scenes approach that focuses on the men before and between battles, with words rather than flying bullets fueling the action. The viewer's experience is somewhat like a visit to a war-themed art exhibit, with the figures in the paintings stepping out of their framed canvases long enough for us to peek at the men they might have been had they not been doomed to be frozen in their youthful poses.

Richard Easton
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Nicholas Martin's production is full of painterly images poised on Alexander Dodge's remarkably beautiful set, artfully lit Donald Holder. The ensemble doesn't have a weak link, and they've mastered their accents so well that you actually have to strain at times, as with an Irish cast, to grasp every word. Interestingly, the play's only survivor, Kenneth Pyper, the bisexual black sheep of an aristocratic family, sounds more Irish as played by his older interpreter, Richard Easton, than by Justin Theroux as the younger man. No matter, since the role gives Easton a chance to once again be reunited with his younger self, as he was in Invention of Love and the two Pypers also provide the play with a flashback structure that takes us from an old man's pained rantings (in 1969) to a reunion with his lonely younger self after the bloody battle of the Somme.

Perhaps it's because the grim parallels between the eight young Ulstermen from a long-ago war are too painful to contemplate that tickets haven't been hard to get as hen's teeth as is usual with Lincoln Center productions, especially in the smaller venue. The less than full house is as likely due to the fact that despite the excellent performances and the visual impact of the production, the problems spurring these men to enlist remain more than a little ambiguous to the end, especially the murky Parisian interlude feeding Pyper's death wish. While the scene during which the soldiers pair off, each partner bolstering the other's weaknesses and fears is quite powerful, it's also a little too symmetrical, pre-planned and familiar -- which, except for its unanticipated super-timeliness, applies to this play generally.

Written by Frank McGuinness
Directed by Nicholas Martin
Cast: Richard Easton (Kenneth Pyper, in his 80's), Justin Theroux (Kenneth Pyper, in his 20's), Jason Butler Harner (David Craig), Scott Wolf (John Millen), Dashiell Eaves (William Moore), Jeremy Shamos (Christopher Roulston), Christopher Fitzgerald (Martin Crawford), Rod McLachlan (George Anderson) and David Barry Gray (Nathaniel McIlwaine).
Set Design: Alexander Dodge
Costume Design: Michael Krass
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Sound Design: Jerry Yager
Original Music: Shaun Davey
Running time: 2 hours plus one 10-minute intermission
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St 212/239-6900
2/06/03-4/13/03; opening 2/24/03.
Tue-Sat 8pm, Wed & Sat 2pm, Sun 3pm -- $60

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 5th performance
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