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A CurtainUp Review
One Shot, One Kill

by Les Gutman
We don't exist out there.
---Major Mark Royce

This is my family.
---Sergeant Nick Harris

The culture of the United States Marine Corps has always been a sort of alien landscape for me. I confess to being fascinated by it, but I also tend to suspect its contours are apocryphal. One Shot, One Kill, a well-rounded (and well-written) play, illuminates and defines what it is to be a Marine quite brilliantly, maybe even accurately.

I'm not sure how playwright Richard Vetere comes by his insight; his playbill bio mentions a masters degree in comparative English literature from Columbia, not normally a Marine Corps stomping ground. But it paints keenly observed portraits of a sergeant, Nick Harris (Robert Montano), and his major, Mark Royce (Michael Cullen), at the Marine Sniper School in Quantico, Virginia. It's a world in which the "Core Values" of the Corps (honor, courage, commitment) are pervasively in effect, producing a collective self-absorption that is remarkable for its intensity. Even wives and family are marginalized, a condition Vetere illustrates by the presence of the young sergeant's wife, Nicole (Andrea Maulella), and the absence of Royce's.

As we meet Harris, a "warrior in his soul" whose mental acuity is as sharp as his physical prowess, he has been rocked by a crisis of conscience. He wants out of the unit. Royce, a legendarily decorated and supremely confident officer, knows how to fight this sort of menace too: mixing hard-ass arm-twisting with a deadly dose of reverse psychology, he'll end up convincing Harris to stay on board, a course that doesn't play out according to Hoyle.

Vetere finds the balance between the hubristic claptrap of recruiting ads and the cautionary tale that lies beneath. Freakish sentimentality is checked by harsh reality; slavish attention to inculcated traditions and "truths" is shown for its necessity but also for its less flattering effects.

As I watched Michael Cullen's impressive portrayal of Major Royce, I couldn't help but think of Jack Nicholson's Col. Nathan Jessup in the film A Few Good Men. Both characters are cut from the same cloth, but whereas Jessup is memorable for his sound bites ("We follow orders, or people die." ), Cullen invests Royce with far more substance than slogans, aided naturally by a script that fleshes out its characters extremely well. Montano renders Harris confliction persuasively, without undercutting the believability of his Marine-like bearing. And Ms. Maulella rings utterly true -- angry and determined, with a resolute awareness of what she is up against. Her interaction with Royce is among the play's best elements, and her pivotal question/response to Royce -- "Do you care about how he is as a husband?" lingers in our minds.

Joe Brancato, who presented this play originally at his Penguin Rep, directs powerfully and tightly, drawing out very finely tuned performances from all the actors. The set design seems straightforward, yet it sensitively draws in the play's intensity without being overbearing. The lighting and sound design are particularly apt, adding significantly to the dramatic effect.

When last I saw Mr. Brancato's work, it was in Cobb, a show that went on to a fuller production in a commercial off-Broadway house. Don't be at all surprised if One Shot, One Kill follows the same track. It has a timeliness that makes it even more irresistible, and with a small cast of juicy roles, I would expect it will be a strong candidate for the regional theater circuit as well.

One Shot, One Kill
by Richard Vetere
Directed by Joe Brancato

with Michael Cullen, Andrea Maulella and Robert Montano
Set Design: Tony Straiges
Costume Design: Curtis Hay
Lighting Design: Jeff Nellis
Original Music and Sound Design: Johnna Doty
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Primary Stages. 354 West 45th Street (8/9 Avs)
Telephone (212) 333-4052
Opening May 20, 2002, closing June 9, 2002
MON, WED-SUN @8, SAT @2:30, SUN @3; $45
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 5/16/02 performance

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