Joe Mantello is giving one-person shows a good name. With Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” and now Marc Wolf’s “Another American: Asking & Telling,” Mantello must top every soloist’s list of preferred directors. Wolf interviewed 150 men and women for his play about gays in the military, and while there’s never any doubt on which side of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” fence he falls, “Another American” emerges first and foremost as a highly entertaining evening of theater.
Since these profiles of servicemen and women are taken from actual transcripts, it’s a bit perverse to say that “Another American” contains some of this theater season’s best writing. As a reporter, Wolf knew precisely which questions to ask. As an editor, he has pruned and pasted with the careful finesse of a collage artist. Repeatedly, Wolf offers portraits that are distinguished by their mercurial, seemingly effortless shift in tone, passing from comedy to pathos and back with a breathtaking alacrity that only the best of playwrights ever achieve.
In one vignette, a Vietnam vet earns the nickname Mary Alice by cutting his fatigues into short-shorts to show a little cheek in the 130-degree heat. The G.I. also remembers bringing his refined decorating skills into play in the barracks, as well as being dropped into a rice paddy that quickly turns into a bloody graveyard.
In another portrait, the mother of Seaman Allen Schindler recalls her Oprah moment in nearly the same breath that she examines her son’s tattoo to make sure the bludgeoned body in the coffin is, indeed, her child.
However harrowing the circumstances, Wolf’s instinct leads him to mine even the thinnest vein of humor, his exploration a journey into the ridiculous. As an absurdist, could he have landed on more fertile soil? Particular standouts are his riffs on why Marines who practice sodomy don’t kiss and how the military became a lesbian club: “They kept out married women and pregnant women, and they’re wondering where all these dykes came from?”
Mantello takes Wolf’s comedic talents and swathes them in an expressionistic production, with set design by Robert Brill. For most of the evening, Wolf performs behind a simple table with microphone, pitcher and water glass. The specter of the McCarthy/Army hearings looms. Behind him rises an oversized column that is, on occasion, illuminated from within. Mantello uses the silhouettes and gaping shadows of Brian MacDevitt’s lighting to call attention to Wolf’s many transformations, and turns these segues into moments of high theater that repeatedly propel rather than conclude the action. In the end, those shadows and silhouettes not only emphasize the evening’s inquisition-like subtext; they become an onstage partner for Wolf to respond to and bounce off.
“Another American” challenges but doesn’t exactly rewrite the rule that all one-person shows should be intermissionless and limited to 90 minutes. The show’s second half could use some trimming. The use of “Zorba the Greek” background music in Wolf’s portrait of Dr. Charles Moskos, a designer of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, should be the first bit to go. This writer-performer invariably finds humor in the victim’s predicament, but is less successful at exposing any real humanity in the perpetrator. Still, most reporters would have to sympathize: You can only repeat what people tell you.