nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 30, 2005
Corps Values is a new play by Brendon Bates, a young playwright whose only other full-length play, The Savior of Fenway (2003) made a strong impression on me. This piece, which is still a work-in-progress, is also a potent work of theatre, and with some trimming and focusing has the potential to be a very important one as well.
The story, told in flashbacks, concerns Casey Taylor, a young man who joined the Marine Corps to fight in the current war in Iraq. When his mother is killed in an auto accident, he is granted leave to return home to Pittsburgh for her funeral. But instead of reporting back to Camp Lejeune to complete his remaining six months of active duty, he opts to go AWOL.
Casey's dad, Wade, served in the Corps in Vietnam, and though it's clear that he and Casey's mom tried to dissuade their son from joining up, it's equally evident that Wade strongly disagrees with his son's decision, at least at first. Wade is unemployed and alcoholic; his war experiences pretty much ruined him for life. The dynamic between father and son—triggered by Casey's intention but in no way limited to just that subject—is a a key theme of the play.
The other is the War itself. Bates recognizes that an issue as charged as this is never simple, and so he shows us many of its sides. Wade believes that a commitment must be honored, as must duty to one's fellow soldiers (something he understands very well from his own tour of duty in 'Nam, which climaxed in the loss of a number of his buddies when he had to blow up a bridge that some of them were stationed beneath). Casey, on the other hand, has concluded that this war should not be perpetuated; should never, in fact, have even started. One of Casey's final words to his father gets right to the crux of the thing: how, he asks, could Wade (and by implication his entire generation) have allowed the war in Iraq to happen, knowing what they did about Vietnam and its aftermath?
Casey's motivation for this commendable stance—which he means to pursue by speaking with a group of Vietnam Vets against the War, at a rally in New York City—is somewhat cloudy, however. He's come home with some serious burn wounds that he supposedly got as the result of a suicide bomb attack. The truth about his injuries, when finally revealed, is even more harrowing, if that's possible; but the trouble is that having Casey tell us about the horrors of modern warfare, compelling as it is, just isn't specific enough to explain why Casey is so determined to quit this particular war. Corps Values is resolutely anti-war, ultimately, and intends to be anti-Iraq War as well, which makes it still something of an anomaly in a landscape that remains shockingly devoid of political theatre of this kind (satires abound; but the serious examinations of the current war that have turned up on NYC stages during the past year can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and the ones that do appear are derided by the media). But its arguments are still too generalized to make an effective case against this war as opposed to all others; I hope Bates will sharpen this aspect of his play's thesis as he whips it into its final form.
At the same time, Bates might consider removing some of the tangential plot points of Corps Values. In particular, the revelation that Casey is about to become a father serves only to muddy waters that are already sufficiently murky and tempestuous: it makes Casey's choices (prison versus six months more of service, probably at a desk job due to his injuries; a clear conscience versus selling out) less clear-cut—isn't he doing his future wife and child severe harm by opting for court-martial? This is an interesting quandary, but it feels tacked on to the play at the moment; I'd suggest that Bates either eliminate it altogether from his story, or bring it up much earlier in the piece and develop it further.
As counterpoint to Wade and Casey, by the way, are two other characters, career Marines both. One is Kyle, who served with Wade in Vietnam and now is a Colonel; Casey's godfather (though lately estranged from the Taylor family), he's keeping his eye on Casey, with questionable results. The other is Samko, the young officer who is summoned to try to talk Casey out of going AWOL. Both of these are interesting characters, and they provide valuable contrasting perspectives that make the play richer and more compelling than it might otherwise be.
This workshop production is directed by Michael Laibson on a functional but modest set. Randy Spence's fight choreography and Erin Andrea's makeup prove especially effective here. Stu Richel and David Robinette give the most accomplished performances as Kyle and Samko, with Jeremiah Cebulski offering a good account of Casey. But Don Striano, at least at the show I attended, doesn't seem to have gotten under the skin of his character, Wade; I missed the complex portrayal that would have lain bare precisely what makes this sad, lonely old man tick.
Bates's script is filled with choice imagery and ideas, and as I've already noted, with some sharpening of focus and streamlining of themes, Corps Values has the potential to be a riveting and timely drama. It's certainly well on its way to delivering just that.