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A CurtainUp Review

An Account From the Philippines-American War (1899-1914) Based on the True Story of Major Littleton Waller

This place makes you appreciate the Spaniards-- they were so damned cooperative. Wore their uniforms, lined up for battle-- agreed to kill and be killed like gentlemen. Well, a soldier can't choose his enemies. Just his wife.
--- General Adna Chaffee

Julie Danao-Salkin & James Matthew Ryan
Julie Danao-Salkin & James Matthew Ryan (Photo:Carol Rosegg)
The hefty subtitle of Anne Nelson's new play Savages, now running at the busy Theater Row complex on Forty-Second Street, sums up what the play is about. It is also a clue for understanding why this all too timely but second hand account of an episode in American history lacks the visceral power of her fledgling play, The Guys.

Unlike, The Guys which was written in just nine days and began when Ms. Nelson helped a fireman struggling with the daunting prospect of composing eulogies for eight of the men lost in the flames of the 9/11 twin tower collapse, Savages went through a longer and less spontaneous birth process. The court martial of Major Littleton Waller in the midst of the Philippine-American conflict, like so many wars, lasted much longer than anticipated. With its disturbing parallels to our entanglements in Vietnam and Iraq, it is shocking that most Americans know this war as a mere historic footnote, if at all. That conflict generally and Major Waller's trial for a mass murder that took place under his watch have all the elements for an informative two-hour or even a two-part PBS documentary.

Ms. Nelson, who became aware of the Waller case while working in the Philippines in 1986, has certainly brought the same sort of scholarship to her project as someone like documentary maker Ken Burns would. However, in opting to turn this story into a play she had to tell her story through a small enough cast to make production feasible for Off-Broadway and regional productions. She's obviously become more savvy about playwriting since The Guys and so she's included (probably wisely so) two real people in her cast and given herself leeway to embellish the text based on actual documents via two fictional characters.

The historic characters are Major Waller (James Matthew Ryan) and the US Army chief of staff General Adna Chaffee (Jim Howard). The fictional secondary players are Corporal John Hanley (Brett Holland), a young US Army corporal from what was still the territory of Oklahoma and Maridol Amaya (Julie Danao-Salkin), a young Filipina nurse called in to make the ailing Waller comfortable enough to testify on his own behalf at the next morning's court martial session.

There's plenty of potential for fiery dialogue and revelation in this set-up of the sick in body and spirit Major being accommodated with a comfortable room before facing his accusers. That potential is boosted by the presence of the ignorant young soldier who has much to learn and the young woman who has had more than her share of an occupied people's sufferings.

Unfortunately, telescoping this conflict into a single night and day after time frame and through four characters instead of employing the range of voices and opinions that typify a documentary, does not do justice to the story. The characters never become people but remain the playwright's puppets, each representing a point of view. The performances don't mitigate this.

Howard's Chaffee is a standard issue blustery Army man wearing his Ugly American attitude towards the people he considers "savages." Ryan's Waller is more human and sympathetic but he slips out of his aches, pains and fevers the way some actors slip in and out of Irish or other foreign accents. Holland plays the Oklahoman corporal a bit too naive, almost as if he were in Oklahoma, the musical. The playwright has made Maridol Amaya rather unconvincingly outspoken and Ms. Danao-Salkin plays her with a few too many knowing looks. A scene when one of her religious statues is broken is inevitable and a game of chess with all manner of meaningful comments on military strategy are devices too familiar to add much excitement to the play's long night and morning after trajectory.

The production's designers have done a competent job of setting the Manila 1902 scene. Chris Jorie's direction tends to slow rather than pump up the action despite all the troubling issues and enlightening information Ms. Nelson has packed into just ninety minutes. There's no question that you'll leave Savages knowing a lot more about our relations with the Philippines, but absorbing all that information at times feels as drawn out as that conflict -- as well as our more recent entanglements that it so depressingly resembles.

Editorial Postscript: As a CurtainUp reader, Dan Perlmutter, pointed out the term Ugly American which I used in reference to General Chaffee's attitude towards the Philippine natives should be interpreted by the generic use of the term to refer to arrogant attitutudes and behavior of Americans abroad. In the context of its origins as the title of William Lederer and Eugene Burdick's 1958 best seller, it was actually a positive term. -- e.s.

The Guys

Playwright: Anne Nelson
Directed by Chris Jorie'
CastJim Howard (Gen. Adna Chaffee), Brett Holland (Cpl. John Hanley), Julie Danao-Salkin (Maridol Amaya) and James Matthew Ryan (Maj. Littleton Waller).
Set Design: Lauren Helpern
Costume Design: Rebecca Bernstein
Lighting Design: Betsy Adams
Sound Design: Jill BC DuBoff
Running time: 90 Minutes without an intermission
Back House Productions at the Lion Theater, 410 West 42nd Street, (212) 279-4200.
From 3/08/06 to 4/01/06; opening 3/09/06.
Tickets: $18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 10th performance
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