John Patrick Shanley has set himself an unenviable challenge, creating a worthy follow-up to his wildly successful Tony and Pulitzer winner, “Doubt.” That challenge arguably is heightened further by choosing to write a drama that shares many structural and thematic characteristics with the 2004 play, again weighing complex moral questions arising from inappropriate sexual conduct — this time confessed, not just suspected. But while “Defiance” is an absorbing work, thoughtful and intelligent, it lacks the clean lines and penetrating insights of its predecessor in the playwright’s planned trilogy.
Given a polished premiere production in Manhattan Theater Club’s Off Broadway space, “Defiance” feels a draft or two away from achieving its potential, never fully clarifying its core questions. Doug Hughes’ typically clear-sighted direction can’t disguise that greater definition is needed in the writing. Significantly, in a drama that once again ponders hierarchy, leadership and power, there are four potentially strong characters battling to provide a center. But nobody wins.
The quartet comprises Lt. Col. Littlefield (Stephen Lang), the tough but fair commanding officer of the North Carolina Marine Corps camp where the action takes place; Capt. Lee King (Chris Chalk), a serious-minded young black officer uneasy with anything beyond routine responsibility; the camp’s new chaplain (Chris Bauer), whose down-home Alabama maxims prompt the colonel to dismiss him prematurely as an inconsequential fool; and Littlefield’s loyal wife, Margaret (Margaret Colin).
“She’s a well-educated, white-glove girl,” the C.O. says of his wife. “She’s fit for more than serving coffee to the likes of us.” While the character could benefit from further expansion, Shanley, like the colonel, knows better than to relegate her to the margins as a dutiful hostess. In Colin’s warm, whip-smart performance, Margaret is the most intriguing figure onstage and the least artificial — shrewdly self-possessed, ever so slightly jaded, supportive of her husband but acutely aware of both his limitations and those of the military as a functioning society governed by its own laws.
That hermetic environment is efficiently drawn in John Lee Beatty’s set. As in his recent work on “Rabbit Hole,” the designer uses twin turntables to conjure the Littlefields’ homey living room and a series of spaces on the compound.
As he did with the Catholic Church in “Doubt,” Shanley attempts a considered assessment of the institution of the military here, setting the play in 1971, as the Vietnam War is winding down, but examining the characters’ behavior often through an anachronistically contemporary lens.
This is especially problematic with King. A “dashed idealist,” as the colonel describes him, the captain has quietly assimilated the realities of the Marines Corps and the world beyond for a black man; he now wants merely to keep his head down and fulfill his obligations. “I just want to disappear into my uniform,” he says, with far more self-awareness and post-therapy perspective than is credible. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
After spending too long disseminating vague information about racial tension, low morale and drug problems in the camp, the play begins to build toward its key conflict when the C.O. promotes King to executive officer, beating out three other captains. Despite his resistance to being singled out for advancement because of the color of his skin, the captain has no choice but to accept. The colonel, meanwhile, has acted on information reluctantly provided by King, cracking down on an off-base housing complex for discriminating against black soldiers.
In an intensely played scene, a catalyst arrives in the form of Private Davis (Jeremy Strong), a distraught, uneducated soldier from the small-town South. He goes to King with a request to be shipped out for combat despite the fact the Marines are basically out of Vietnam. Forced to explain his reasons, Davis reveals that Lt. Col. Littlefield slept with his wife while dealing with the housing situation and the private now prefers to go off and be killed than ever look at her again.
Responding to Littlefield’s transgression, King is forced to overcome his own desire to be merely “a tool” and instead to defy authority and insist on moral recourse.
“The Catholics are just more fun,” says the colonel after his first brush with the new Protestant chaplain. “To them, religion’s a bloodsport.” The assertion could almost apply to the church in relation to the military as the arena for this kind of drama about ethical and moral dilemmas. While the complexity of responses to sin and corruption in “Doubt” had a knife-edge clarity, in “Defiance,” the characters too often remain opaque, their motivations muddy. Nearly every confrontation that occurs after Littlefield’s exposure seems generated by a playwright exploring issues and not by the spontaneous reactions of fully developed characters.
While those dramaturgical shortcomings hamper the actors, Lang, Chalk and Bauer all have flashes of integrity and insight, and Strong has emotional impact in his single scene.
But it’s Colin’s bracing presence that most invigorates the play, accepting of her role as a figure of peripheral importance yet ever alert to the nuances of what’s unfolding around her and capable of exercising her influence.
There’s a mostly understated hint of the Clintons during their White House years in the Littlefields, with Margaret providing backbone as the colonel strives to build himself up and win admiration before being undone by a moment of weakness. “Are you going to let the fact that I’m human impeach everything I’ve done?” he asks King.
Clearly, it’s not the play Shanley intended to write, but had he chosen to centralize Margaret and explore more specifically the role of another woman in another male-dominated power structure, she might have made an interesting counterpart to Sister Aloysius in “Doubt.” And “Defiance” might have made a more satisfying companion piece.