½ Geometry Of Fire, A CurtainUp review, CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
Geometry of Fire

When soldiers prepare for battle, they determine their geometry of fire. It's a strategy for defense; fire support coordination measures; basically so they don't shoot each other. But the thing about these wars like the one in Iraq, like a war against any insurgency, is that they're fought on asymmetrical batlefields. . .There's no logic to the whole thing, no predictability, no linearity. . .— Chuck
Geometry of Fire
L to R: Kevin O'Donnell & Jennifer Mudge
(Photo: Sandra Coudert)
I saw my first Stephen Belber play, Death of Frank, in 1998 in a small theater at the back of a SoHo art gallery. It didn't quite live up to the promotional copy's claim of taking playwriting to the level where it needs to be, but I found its theme powerful and its language rose above wannabe lyricism so that it stayed with me a long time. Four years passed before his excellent Tape (which was also made into a movie) was presented, further uptown, also in a small theater. One Million Butterflies, a monologue at the old Primary Stages' tiny upstairs venue, found Belber at his most lyrical but least dramatically compelling After that serveral Belber plays were presented by high profile Off-Broadway companies—McReele by the Roundabout and A Small Meolodramatic Story by the LABrynth Theater Company. In 2004 Belber finally made it to Broadway with Match. Despite a tour de force performance by Frank Langella, it closed after 28 previews and 53 performances.

Why this countdown of Mr. Belber works that I've reviewed? While none attained that level of perfection one always hopes for, all are unfailingly well written and feature compelling themes. As a result any play with his by-line has enough potential pluses to make me want to see it. Now, with Fault Lines, an intriguing exploration of the fickleness of friendship and the fragility of the marital state, having concluded its run at the Cherry Lane, Belber tackles the emotional scars brought home by veterans of the Iraq war in Geometry of Fire.

The veteran at the center of Geometry of Fire is Mel (Kevin O'Donnel), a former financial executive whose motives for becoming a Marine sniper in Iraq are as troublesome as what led the country into that war. Most obviously, he seems to have sought to escape what he saw as a boring life. It also smacks of rebelling against his father (Jeffrey DeMunn), who works for the government but was a conscious objector during the Vietnam War and remains a committed anti-war believer. While Mel came home luckier than the mutilated duo in Michael Weller's Beast, his invisible scars are exacerbated by memories of a young Iraq teenager he killed and go deep enough to prevent him from moving on with his life—, much to the chagrin of the well-meaning father whose home in what appears to be an outlying hamlet of the nation's capital, his present circumstances, have forced him to share.

To ramp up the drama Belber has created another character, Tariq (Donnie Keshawarz), a young Saudi-American whose story paralells and intersects with Mel's. The son of a chauffeur at the American embassy in Afghanistan, Tariq is going through his own trauma: his father's deadly cancer which Tariq is convinced was caused by chemical and biological weapons buried near their home near the site known as American University Experimental station during World War I. (This is actually based on fact and Belber has been quoted as saying that Tariq's character is also drawn from personal experience).

The play is structured so that the two young men's stories intersect without too much of a credibility stretch. Mel and Tariq's stories merge at a bar where Tariq's girl friend Cynthia (Jennifer Mudge, who also played the woman in the recent Fault Lines) works as a bar tender. Things don't go well between the two troubled young men, so don't expect this to evolve into a buddy play. On the contrary, when Tariq suspects Mel of flirting with Cynthia and Mel overhears his angry remarks about the government he holds responsible for his father's illness, causes each man's personal anxiety to explode.

The parallel stories are further connected (with a bit too much reliance on coincidence) through scenes in which DeMunn and Mudge double as various other characters (DeMunn as a former serviceman now giving rather pat motivational talks and advice to "unhomed " veterans like Mel; Mudge as an ineffective veteran's counsellor and a government representative addressing Tariq's inquiries into the buried chemicals).

DeMunn and Mudge handle their various role with aplomb. O'Donnell portrays the guilt-haunted, emotionally immobilized Mel with sensitive understatement. The tall, dark and handsome Keshawarz is believable and dynamic as an Arab-American, who comes across as more American than Arab. His Arab roots evident only briefly as part of the love felt for his father, rather than the terrorist tendencies with which we've labelled all these hyphenated Americans since 9/11.

No doubt, the production would benefit from more sophisticated production values. However, Lucie Tiberghien, who happens to be married to Belber, has directed the character and scene shifts as smoothly as can be expected within the Rattlestick Theater's budget constrains.

Theater goers seeking a night away two still ongoing wars and all the other problems afflicting our country, won't find it in Geometry Of Fire. It's a sad and gloomy play. But it deals with an all too real situation which is echoed by an op-ed column published on the same morning that I'm writing this review ("Help Is on the Way" by Bob Herbert, New York Times, November 22,2008).

Herbert writes that "with so much attention understandably focused on the economy and the incoming administration, the struggles being faced by G.I.'s coming home from combat overseas are receding even further from the public's consciousness." He goes on to talk about a group (http://www.iava.org/) founded to relieve the sense of isolation that has so many veterans like Mel in its grip. He also cites a major advertising campaign entitled "Alone" that is "trying to get troubled veterans to come in from the cold and piercingly lonely environment of post-wartime stress."

If you're wondering if Geometry of Fire is worth seeing and thinking about, consider this from Paul Reickhoff, the group's executive director: "Nobody can cross this river without getting wet."

Links to Stephen Belber plays reviewed at Curtainup
Fault Lines(2008)
Death of Frank (1998)
Match (2004)
McReele/ (2005)
One Million Butterflies(2003)
A Small Melodramatic Story (2004)
Tape/Belber, Stephen (2002)
Links to other trenchant Iraq plays seen during the past year:
In Conflict

Geometry Of Fire
By Stephen Belber
Directed by Lucie Tiberghien
Cast: Jeffrey DeMunn (Bob, Chuck), Donnie Keshawarz (Tariq), Jennifer Mudge (Cynthia and other women), Kevin O'Donnell (Mel)
Sets: Robin Vest
Costumes: Anne Kennedy
Lights: Peter West
Sound: Broken Chord Collective
Props: Mary Robinette Kowal
Fight Choreography: Rick Sordelet
Technical director: Brian Smallwood
Stage Manager: Katrina Renee Herrmann
Running Time: 90 minutes, without an intermission
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater 224 Waverly Place (off Seventh Avenue South between West 11th & Perry Streets). 212-868-4444
From 11/15/08; opening 11/24/08; closing 12/21/08.
Wednesday Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm.
Tickets are $40.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on November 20th
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