Playwright Michael Weller, who made his big theatrical debut in 1972 with a play about America's convulsions during Vietnam, is again dramatizing our deeply dysfunctional national psyche during yet another catastrophic war. His new play Beast is described by Weller as "a fever dream in six parts." And while some of those parts are definitely less compelling than others, Weller's "fever dream" is staged vividly here by director Jo Bonney. It's also brutally funny, in the tradition of other dark, absurd war stories like Full Metal Jacket. (If you're going to see it and hate spoilers, here's where you'll want to stop reading.)
The fantasy begins with Private Jimmy Cato (Logan Marshall-Green) paying his final respects to his dead sergeant, Buddy Voychevsky (Corey Stoll), at a military hospital in Germany, where Cato landed after an Iraqi ambush. Cato's face is badly scarred, but he looks like Steve McQueen next to the mutilated Voychevsky, who unexpectedly staggers out of his coffin, a walking, talking corpse destined to wander the U.S. with Cato. Once they rotate back to the world, they encounter all kinds of characters in their episodic travels: blind prostitutes, a religious truck driver, the abusive boyfriend of Voychevsky's ex-wife. But it's not until Voychevsky, the confused monster, winds up at Mount Rushmore (impressively rendered by designers Eugene Lee and Bob Flanagan) that he understands his mission. To Crawford Texas, to confront his bumbling Dr. Frankenstein!
The performances are uniformly excellent, and Weller's script has some very funny dialogue, such as when the undead Voychevsky asks a shocked onlooker: "Is my still-alive status a problem here?" But the message is heavy-handed, and the play's premise feels facile, as if Weller quickly hammered together a rudimentary wheelbarrow for his outrage and was content to cart it around aimlessly until unloading it on a wishful climax. When the two army buddies finally confront the Commander-in-Chief, the comedy mined from GW's cluelessness seems stale.
Perhaps at this point I'm simply too weary from the past eight years to sit in an East Village theater and laugh along at another easy satire of the president. It didn't even give me any pleasure to see Bush engulfed in flames, though one suspects that's the satisfaction Weller derived from writing it. No, what I really want is to wake up and find the nightmare of the past eight years to be over—a yearning that is itself just a fever dream.