Coming after “Gloria” and “An Octoroon,” both brimming with ideas, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ new work, “War,” is a bit of a buzz-kill. The play has something potentially interesting to say about language as a means of defining our common humanity and asserting our individual identity. But in its current over-thought, overwrought, and overwritten state — now playing at Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 — the idea is stalled in the format of a strained domestic drama about an unremarkable but unbearable family.
How could a lovely person like Roberta (Charlayne Woodard) have such awful children? Having suffered a debilitating stroke, Roberta herself lies intubated and comatose in a hospital bed. But her life-force — the animated spirit played by the very personable Woodard — is very much alive and searching for the words (and the identity) she’s lost.
Roberta was at the zoo with her German half-sister, Elfriede (Michele Shay, the soul of goodness), standing in front of the gorilla cages when she had her stroke. This goes to explain the simian shapes (and animalistic hooting and grunting) on the stage, where a nice balance of realism and surrealism is achieved by Mimi Lien (sets) and Matt Frey (lighting).
Aside from Roberta, played by Woodard with a guileless, unworldly air, the other characters are all realistically drawn and performed under director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s eagle-eyed direction. Roberta’s selfish son, Tate, gets no love from Chris Myers (“An Octoroon”). Daughter Joanne (Rachel Nicks, injecting a bit of heart into this chilly character) is more sympathetic, if not likable. At least she has the self-knowledge to note that, “I can’t even tell sometimes if I know what a family without fighting even looks like.”
In secondary roles, Lance Coadie Williams doubles as a kind nurse and a remarkably realistic alpha gorilla. Elfriede’s hot-headed son, Tobias, is such a brute he nearly confounds the actor who plays him, Austin Durant. But the playwright has given Tobias a hard-hitting soliloquy about the terrible pressure of caring for a sick parent, and Durant delivers it with unnerving emotion.
Although he loses sight of the subject in the heat of the domestic drama, Jacobs-Jenkins seemed to have been onto something about language — how it defines us, elevates us, makes us special — and how the loss of language robs us of our humanity, our very identity. Unless, of course, we happen to be Elfriede, a former veterinary nurse who can’t speak a word of English (or Ape), but has a deep understanding of both humans and animals that makes her something of a saint.