War is a brutalizing business that systematically destroys whatever is noble about humanity by reducing men and women to their animal nature. So argues Swedish playwright Lars Noren in his bluntly titled drama “War.” Among its lesser outrages, war also seemingly causes a softening of the brain in playwrights and theater companies that mistake the stage for a political soapbox. However high-minded his intentions, Noren has written a stupefyingly dull agit-prop drama that’s all the more deadly in Anders Cato’s lugubrious production.
Mistaking vagueness for universality, scribe recounts the unrelenting misery of an ill-defined family in an unidentified Eastern European country ravaged by an indeterminate war. Their humanity already stripped away before the lights even come up on Van Santvoord’s primitive cave of a set, the suffering members of this unfortunate household have nowhere to go dramatically — and nowhere is exactly where the hapless performers take them.
Mother (Rosalyn Coleman) is mis-named, having long lost her maternal instincts in the grinding struggle just to stay alive. Her sullen older daughter Beenina (Ngozi Anyanwu) is a prostitute, servicing American soldiers who replaced the original occupying Russian army. Little sister Semira (Flora Diaz) is an alert but irritating child whose incessant whining would try the patience of a saint.
Fourth member of this depressed household is Uncle Ivan (Alok Tewari), who comes by often to sleep with Mother. While his character is no better defined than the others, Tewari manages to give him an air of grave dignity. At least he’s acting.
When Father (Laith Nakli) unexpectedly arrives home — blind, but not entirely broken from his prison camp ordeal — the family is less than happy to see him. Nakli rightly rubs our noses in his flawed humanity, daring us to despise him after all he’s gone through. But this ignorant and brutal man, who treats his women like property, is hard to take.
“I want what’s mine,” he roars in frustration and rage. “I want what I have the right to have.”
“Roars” is probably too vivid a term for the maddeningly muted performance style that makes this production even more of a downer than it already is. With the exception of Diaz’s annoying chirping, the cast’s voices rarely rise above a whisper, an affectation that contributes to the overall tension, but dulls the specific domestic conflicts.
“Specific,” however, is probably too pointed a term for the stereotypical behavior that passes for willful action here. Even “action” is too strong a term for … but let’s not start another war.