'Geometry of Fire'

There's more than one way to write an anti-war play, and in "Geometry of Fire," Stephen Belber picks the hard way. There are no heroics in this edgy drama about a Marine who comes home from Iraq with a bad case of post-combat stress. There's no glory, either, in the sad story of how he alienates friends and menaces strangers. What the play has, instead, is substance and purpose -- and plenty of guts.

There’s more than one way to write an anti-war play, and in “Geometry of Fire,” Stephen Belber picks the hard way. There are no heroics in this edgy drama about a Marine who comes home from Iraq with a bad case of post-combat stress. There’s no glory, either, in the sad story of how he alienates friends and menaces strangers. What the play has, instead, is substance and purpose — and plenty of guts. Tough subject matter is presented with few compromises in Lucie Tiberghien’s smartly cast and unaffected production for Rattlestick, which  should add to its appeal to serious, discerning auds.

The second new play this season from Belber (following “Fault Lines”), “Geometry of Fire” has its flaws, starting with the strained metaphorical conceit of the title. (The military term has to do with how soldiers learn to take bullet coordinates, so they don’t shoot one another.)

The playwright is also a bit too enthralled by the sound of his own thoughts. In hanging poetical garlands onto the dialogue, he only obscures the clarity of his more starkly functional prose style of heightened realism.

Finally, after maneuvering his volatile protagonist into a murderous confrontation, scribe backs off before the sniper gets off his last shot. Thematically, this pertains to the fact that the best-calculated mathematical formulas of war can always be thrown off by human factors. Dramatically, it’s still a cop-out.

That said, this gripping drama has no trouble rising above its flaws. One can’t help being moved by Mel Anderson (Kevin O’Donnell), only a few months back from two tours in Iraq and still vibrating from his experiences as a Marine sniper. One particular kill — of an Iraqi teenager who may have been laying a land mine — has him thoroughly haunted.

O’Donnell, who comes to this part by way of regional productions of the classics, displays an almost spooky affinity for the character. Technically, he may have drawn on Hamlet’s intellectual bafflement and Tybalt’s combustible fury, and added a dash of the doomed Mercutio’s boyish charm to capture Mel’s complexity. But on his feet, Mel is his own man — and so is O’Donnell.

Working on a near-bare stage with elementary staging aids, helmer Tiberghien deftly guides Mel through the many disorienting scenes making up his uneasy journey to self-knowledge. Although given definition by the quicksilver cast, some of the people who tumble in and out of his consciousness are mere shadows. Others are as unnervingly real as people get when they’re in your face.

The person who gets right up Mel’s nose is Tariq (“T-Bone”) Al-Turki. An aimless, kinda goofy Saudi-American from the neighborhood in Donnie Keshawarz’s comfortable performance, Tariq tries his best to distance himself from the imminent death of his father by drinking at the local bar and flirting with the bartender Cynthia (Jennifer Mudge).

Tariq finds his backbone when he joins a class action suit demanding an accounting for the toxic waste that poisoned the local soil — and maybe his father. It’s not his fault that he reminds Mel of the Arab kid in his nightmares. Or that they are both after Cynthia, played by Mudge with disarming good nature.

Belber has loaded his play so that the barrel keeps pointing at the showdown between Mel and Tariq at the bar. This, we can see coming a mile away. The scenes more likely to poke at our brains, though, are the unexpected ones that focus on what it means to be “un-homed,” a vivid term for the disorientation felt by returning soldiers.

“I was mentally and emotionally lost … a million miles away,” says Chuck, a motivational speaker whose therapeutic message is pretty spellbinding in Jeffrey DeMunn’s performance. But with studies showing mental stress in at least a third of the roughly 300,000  American soldiers returning from war zones, Chuck has one helluva job to do.

Mel soaks up Chuck’s message, but for all his efforts to get help, he keeps running into overworked shrinks and social workers locked into bureaucratic procedures. They are good-hearted, but ineffectual types like Wanda (Mudge, again), the VA psychiatrist who doesn’t get Mel when he refuses to take Prozac and insists: “I don’t wanna manage my memory.”

If Wanda is aware that young veterans are two to four times as likely to commit suicide as non-combatants of the same age, she might show considerable more patience — or alarm — at Mel’s ranting.

Chances are, the aud’s eyes and ears on Mel’s struggles are likely to be those of his politically liberal father, Bob Anderson. As sympathetically played by the versatile DeMunn, Bob is informed on the issues and concerned about his son. While his efforts to help Mel are as ineffectual as those of the pros, it’s just nice (and so rare) to see one stage father who isn’t insensitive or antagonistic to his disaffected son.

Geometry of Fire

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater; 99 seats; $40 top

Production

A Rattlestick Playwrights Theater presentation of a play in one act by Stephen Belber. Directed by Lucie Tiberghien.

Creative

Sets, Robin Vest; costumes, Anne Kennedy; lighting, Peter West; sound, Broken Chord Collective; production stage manager, Katrina Renee Herrmann. Opened Nov. 24, 2008. Reviewed Nov. 20. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Bob, Chuck ... Jeffrey DeMunn Tariq ... Donnie Keshawarz Cynthia, et al ... Jennifer Mudge Mel ... Kevin O'Donnell

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