Meanwhile, in Baghdad...
nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman Beaudin
August 11, 2008
In Meanwhile in Baghdad, writer Josh Cole weaves together the experiences of six characters affected by a war between the United States and Iraq. The twist? The war takes place on U.S. soil, so Baghdad enjoys relative peace while the conflict in the U.S. is in danger of escalating into civil war.
The play alternates scenes among a pair of Baghdad newscasters, a detainee and a soldier, and two men on a subway platform in Baghdad. As the play progresses, the newscasters use the language of war we've become accustomed to—"insurgents," "factions," "sectarian violence"—and they speak about how the war is getting progressively worse. The multimedia team, Graham Johnson, Lisa Lucas, Wyatt Maker, and Justin Leahy, have created video to simulate newscasts on location in America, from Chicago, for example, where students must fight to get an education. The two men on the subway platform philosophize—between announcements about "suspicious packages" and "remaining alert"—about the pros and cons of the war on terror. The soldier talks to the detainee about the emotional toll the war has taken on him.
There is a lot about this piece that works. The structure of alternating among the settings allows the action to build in each scene and makes it easier to make connections among the various ideas and characters. The playwright successfully uses the language, images, jargon, and clichés of the current war, and setting the conflict on American soil allowed me to see the war from a kind of distance, which I am pretty sure was Cole's intention. The actors, under the direction of Nick Leavens, make up a fine ensemble.
The big problem I had with the piece, however, is that there is a whole lot of talking going on, especially between the two men on the platform, and not enough action, not enough of a plot, though the soldier character has more of a story line than the others. Maybe Cole took on too much for an hour-long play, and wasn't able to develop a strong storyline for all of the characters. Maybe his intention is just to give the audience a different perspective by asking us to imagine that it's a war on American soil. Another confusing point about the piece is that while the soldier makes a point of saying that the detainee doesn't understand what he's saying because it's a foreign language, they both speak in English. While I could intellectually imagine that the characters did not understand one another, I had trouble experiencing that without some kind of convention to show it.
Overall, I do appreciate that the play asks audience members to consider the war from a new perspective, and I admire Cole's desire to work with this material. I think he could make the work stronger, perhaps by choosing to focus on two of the characters and giving them a clearer story.