nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
August 12, 2006
Bill Quigley's intense political drama Don't Ask begins in the murky darkness, with two male bodies awkwardly coming out of a coital embrace in a remote storage unit of an American base in Iraq. No sooner do Private Bobby McNeill and his superior Sergeant Charles Dunham zip up, than the hostility begins to spew. They clash not only over their furtive and unfulfilling affair, but over an incident of prisoner torture and possibly murder that recently occurred on the base. Charged with investigation of the scandal, a conflicted Dunham wants to protect McNeill but is committed to prosecute the men who have brought disgrace upon his unit. He fears McNeill's involvement, and as he pushes to hear the truth, he moves toward the heart of darkness of American military conquest today.
This ambitious play considers dynamics of power and its abuse in the dual contexts of war and sexual desire, set within a highly topical context. If the events are somewhat sensational, we know they are inspired by actual headlines. But while the characters are drawn to represent strongly defined positions, there is not enough human connection between them. The play suffers mostly from a lack of attraction—either sexually or emotionally—between its two characters.
While Mark Steven Robinson's direction keeps the action taut and tense, it cannot overcome a static situation. The fact that the two actors keep walking across the stage without purpose and without getting anywhere is a symptom of a script that often seems like it doesn't know where to go. Once the balance of power is established early in the play, it never really shifts. As a result, the actors' performances are intense but monotonous.
Daniel Dugan as the young private McNeill plays unstable defiance from the first line and stays with this action through the entire play. Punctuating almost every sentence with an ingratiating hee-haw guffaw and flaunting a Fatal Attraction-type of psychosis, it's hard to comprehend that his superior, however desirous, would have allowed their affair to go on this long. As Dunham, Tom Flynn spends most of the play like a tense statue, clutching his fists as he stands at attention, periodically releasing the tension in physical violence.
The performances do have potent moments. Dugan breaks his pattern briefly when he reveals the truth of what happened between his squadron and their Iraqi prisoners—offering a horrifying glimpse at his violent potential. I wished more of his performance could suggest the darkness of this young man, rather than constantly indicating lunacy on the surface. Flynn transcends his character's stasis late in the play, when his faith in the American mission is shattered by the reality of the war's horrifying impact. In these two powerful moments, political and personal concerns truly merge and the play comes into strong relief. If more of the play could engage us in these individuals and not only the power struggle they represent, it would be all the more effective.