Inspired by the WWII experiences and post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by the playwright’s father, Donald Holtzman, and thousands of other soldiers, Willie Holtzman’s “Hearts” has received an Arthur Miller Award for Dramatic Writing and a 2000-01 Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play in Philadelphia after its premiere at the People’s Light and Theater Co. Never less than highly competent and with its heart clearly involved, the play nevertheless seldom delves below its briskly efficient surface and doesn’t always avoid sentimentality and audience manipulation.
The Long Wharf Theater production, directed by Melia Bensussen in its premiere, is as competent and efficient as the script. Playing Donald Waldman, the playwright’s stand-in for his father, a sturdy Dan Lauria delivers with solid heartiness what is in effect a playlong monologue illustrated by acted-out scenes.
Lauria’s heartiness somewhat calls into question the character’s lifelong battle with his terrible memories, including the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. The other four cast members portray his wife, the three wartime buddies with whom Donald plays the card game Hearts regularly, and a slew of other characters: Germans, a psychiatrist, Donald’s son and granddaughter, an encyclopedia salesman, et al.
Judith Hawking, Bruce MacVittie, Vasili Bogazianos and a believably stuttering Peter Van Wagner are completely efficient, but again, without progressing much beyond the play’s stereotypes, war cliches and jokes. The playwright hasn’t always held glibness at bay.
Throughout the intermisionless production, projections on the floor of James Noone’s sleek red, white and blue set help the audience sort out the date of any given scene as the script flashes backwards and forwards from 1944 to the present and from St. Louis to WWII’s Western European front.
The almost propless set, apart from a table and chairs, is backed by a white mesh wall on which is projected war scenes accompanied by banging, crashing sound effects. Trouble is, films and TV do this sort of thing so much more persuasively.
The WWII song “I’ll Be Seeing You” begins and ends the production. And the play culminates with a scene in which its central character meets, via online chat room, a Buchenwald survivor who remembers him entering the camp near the end of the war. This helps Donald come to terms with his lacerating memories.
Never less than honorable in intention, “Hearts” was written by Holtzman because he believes insufficient attention has been paid to the “invisible wounds, terrible secrets, untold stories” of WWII veterans. But his war play is too general, too generic to really come to terms with the toll taken by post-traumatic stress disorder on that generation.