War Music

One wonders what the Geffen brass saw in this convoluted work that attempts to intertwine the two world wars with efforts from three European composers. Third-act needs work to create a cathartic experience, large budget gives it a decent, if unspectaular, look and the actors seem less than prepared.

The Geffen Playhouse alters its policy of avoiding plays that have already been staged in Los Angeles to bring in Bryan Davidson’s “War Music,” a piece initially presented, and warmly received, in 2002 at the downtown LATC. One wonders what the Geffen brass saw in this convoluted work that attempts to intertwine the two world wars with efforts from three European composers. The third-act underwent a rewrite but it still needs work to create a cathartic experience, the substantially larger budget gives it a decent, if unspectaular, look and the actors, some of whom were in the LATC production, seem less than prepared. The old “war is hell” theme is long overworked as fodder for enlightenment about life, but the inconsistent tone of the “three movements” that comprise “War Music” strikes far too many bum notes to limn insights into either music or war.

Davidson’s central figures in the individual chapters are Frank Bridge (Victor Raider-Wexler) (a footnote even in a list of Brit songsmiths), the 12-tone Austrian composer Webern (Christopher Shaw) and Frenchman Messiaen (Jeremy Maxwell), a birdsong devotee who did actually compose a work while being held as a prisoner of war. Each gets a few lines at the beginning of their separate segments to express thoughts on composition; only the third movement, “The Angel Who Announces the End of Time,” in which Messiaen struggles to complete his “Quartet for the End of Time,” do the battlefield and composition intersect. In the long run, it may be the most troubling of the “movements.”

Davidson uses a bounty of facts — Messiaen finding inspiration from both birdsongs and the Book of Revelations, a POW camp band of clarinetist, cellist and violinist, and a fascination with Hindu music’s concept of time — and then flowers them up with an angel-led metaphysical journey, a musical joke parade and a pair of soldiers who threaten death if Wagner isn’t praised.

The juxtaposition is more incongruous than inventive — there’s a good reason to not mix Strindberg and “Hogan’s Heroes.”

The coming and going of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows (Nancy Bell), the one figure with a role in each movement, is far-fetched and unconvincing, partially due to Davidson’s cliched lines and Bell stumbling through them at an odd cadence. Add to that some bizarreness involving an arm severed in the first act and Messiaen’s band, who sit and wait for the man they consider a genius to return with the finished score, filling their time with jokes that upset the clarinetist.

It’s jarring to go from a complex question such as “Where is God in all of this?” to the more frivolous “What’s the difference between an onion and a clarinet?”

Perhaps Messiaen is a changed man after his journey, though the audience get no sense of a transformation — only the opening bars of his quartet, which echo a mournful bird and a human cry. Musically, he was obviously capable of writing the passage prior to his visit with the angel, so what exactly has changed? As in all of the pieces, there’s a lack of catharsis.

With a fantasy element in only one of the three stories, it appears to come from a different work — perhaps one that could stand on its own. As it is, the fantasy is too earthbound.

Director Jessica Kubzansky allows an almost solemn tone to permeate all three acts. She doesn’t elicit enough despair out of the actors, keeping their actions relatively slow and even-keeled. A jittery private, therefore, plays as action; when soldiers and a child wander the aisles, it’s laughably contrived.

Opener “At Dawn” is stark, abrupt and clangy — a WWI story of composer-teacher Frank Bridge and his student, Douglas Fox (Maxwell) — based on the front lines in France — who loses that arm.

With a bit of sexual healing and suicide on the side in the hospital where Fox is recuperating, Bridge makes a connection to the soldier by composing exercises for the left hand. If we study Fox long enough, there’s a sense that he hasn’t lost purpose in life the way his comrade did, though the direction, acting and script play it all so subtly, it requires a bit of amplification to drive the point home.

Second act’s first part, “The Accidental Death of Anton (von) Webern,” concerns the shooter more than the victim: Pfc. Raymond Bell (John Prosky) guns down Webern during an undercover operation and a never recovers. His drunkenness eventually alienates him from his wife Helen (Nancy Bell) and daughter Elizabeth (Tina Holmes). His collapse wholly believable, and ably portrayed by Prosky, suffers from begin overlong; sadly, the piece never connects the dots on Webern’s revolutionary musical theories.

With so many roles spread among so few actors, none of the portrayals feels fully inhabited. Maxwell captures the bewilderment of the young soldier in “At Dawn,” races through his lines as Dieter in the Webern section and then brings an odd blank slate to Messiaen. Raider-Wexler is a calm Bridge, but in “Accidental Death” its tough to grasp how a seemingly Catholic priest — nothing is said to make us believe he’s another religion — would have a wife and a son.

Webern was known as a quiet man who kept to himself and Davidson holds to that persona. Shaw therefore is limited in what he’s ask to do to bring the composer to life.

With a stage populated with Brits, Germans, the French, Austrians and Americans, it’s bothersome that accents come and go, sometimes within the same scene. Play, filled too often with dialogue that could only be written with a late-20th-century sensibility, would be better served were it played straight.

Geffen producing director Gil Cates has long contended that he wants a season filled with works that elicit debate, regardless of whether a theatergoer found the work good or bad. This season has gone by rather innocuously, but in “War Music,” Cates has a found a play that garnered cheers of “bravo” and grunts of “fraud” on opening night.

War Music

Geffen Playhouse; 499 seats; $46 top

  • Production: A Geffen Playhouse presentation of a play in two acts by Bryan Davidson. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky.
  • Crew: Sets, Susan Gratch; lighting, Michael Giliam; costumes, Elizabeth Palmer; sound, John Zalewski; production stage manager, Lisa J. Snodgrass. Opened and reviewed Jan. 21, 2004; closes Feb. 22. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.
  • Cast: Our Lady of Seven Sorrows/Nurse Poole/Helen Bell - Nancy Bell Frank Bridge/Sacristan/German soldier - Victor Raider-Wexler Anton Webern/Dr. Ely/ Jean le Boulaire/ German soldier - Christopher Shaw Oliver Messiaen/ Cpl. Douglas Fox - Jeremy Maxwell A mother/Christine Mattel/Elizabeth Bell/Claire Delbos - Tina Holmes Pvt. Barkley/Sgt. Murray/ Etienne Pasquier/ Cpl. Gurney - Kevin Crowley Mr. Denby/Henri Akoka/ PFC Raymond Bell - John Prosky
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