“A New War” was a big hit when first seen in October at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater on Cape Cod, and Gip Hoppe’s lampoon of cable TV saturation coverage of a war “in the near future” could scarcely be more topical in its current transfer to Jimmy Tingle’s Off Broadway in the Boston suburb of Somerville. Indeed, the performance reviewed took place on the night of the start of the U.S.-Iraq war. Whether this topicality is a plus or a minus for “New War” remains to be seen. What is certain is that playwright-director Hoppe, whose “Jackie: An American Life” was seen on Broadway and in London a few years ago, is not a subtle satirist. And although “New War” has its share of laughs, it’s more a matter of burlesqued parody than scalpel-like wit.
Its four exuberant, often noisy performers play a variety of interviewer and interviewee roles with unstinting energy and no little skill as they expose the inanity and insanity of war and TV coverage of it. Watching cable coverage of the beginning of the war in Iraq the morning after seeing “New War” was eerily like watching more of the play itself, so there’s no denying that Hoppe and his cast often hit their targets dead on. But too much of the play, if it can actually be called one rather than a string of sketches, is just too broad and obvious. Naturally, when the president of the U.S. appears, he can’t pronounce certain words, including “strategic,” and what he urges Americans to do to support the new war is “Go shopping.”
Hoppe has a fertile imagination. His new war is being fought against an unknown enemy (we know they are evil and they dress and eat differently from us) by such weapons as a scrotum-scraper bomb that knocks on the front doors of houses, disembowels whomever answers, cremates the dead body and vacuums up the ashes. Meantime, the war is known as “Operation bend over and take your eagle the hard way.” Oh yes, God is dragged into the fray regularly, too. If you find all of this hilariously funny, you’ll enjoy “A New War.”
When the secretary of defense appears, he’s genuinely worried about sending all those brave weapons to war — after all, they may not get back safely. A retired general gabbles on endlessly as the frantically repetitive war coverage proceeds, one member of the public appears with an American flag sewn to his forehead (he’s in great pain and doesn’t know why he did it), and the public is urged to tattle on anyone who, for instance, doesn’t fly an American flag. What’s more, breast-feeding is outlawed and all constitutional rights are suspended for the duration of the war, which is the fifth or sixth this year.
Virtually nobody who appears on the play’s television screen has anything to say, least of all the anchorman and -woman or anchormen and -women who may vary in name but are all cookie-cutter alike.
Shortly before “A New War” winds up, we learn the war is actually being fought by the U.S. against the U.S. Specifically, eggheads. More specifically, foreign-language departments in academia. One good thing is that the war ends quickly, as does “A New War,” though perhaps not quickly enough. As is true of war, a little Hoppe goes a long way.