Add Michael Weller’s initially promising new play to the list of things George W. Bush has ruined. “Beast,” Weller’s long-winded shaggy-dog zombie drama, launches with originality to spare when a disfigured Iraq vet and his previously living pal set out across the globe seeking some kind of benediction from the country they’ve been defending. If this trip ended anywhere besides Crawford, Texas, it would be worth taking, but the otherwise surprising play screws up the endgame by climaxing with a profoundly obnoxious cardboard cut-out caricature of the president, Xeroxed from any number of less interesting plays.
It all starts so well, especially the coffin, a tragically underused theatrical device that adorns all of Eugene Lee’s gorgeous sets for this play. Sometimes the flag-draped box is in the middle of the stage, sometimes multiples of it poke up endwise all over the scene, like a dozen patriotic monoliths. In one of these containers we find Benjamin “Voych” Voychevsky (Corey Stoll), a fallen soldier much mourned by his buddy Jimmy Cato (Logan Marshall-Green), who is first seen trying not to cry while talking to the box holding Voych’s remains.
It soon becomes clear that, however dead and horribly mutilated Voych is, he’s still surprisingly active. At first we’re not sure whether or not it has all been a mistake — maybe Voych was in a coma; maybe he was asleep; maybe the doctor working on him hadn’t examined his body closely enough. But after Voych insists on going AWOL, we learn he can do things few people are capable of. He can take a large knife in the chest, for example, and he apparently neither breathes nor decomposes. “I’m going through some changes,” he says sadly, but that’s the problem: He’s not.
Stoll’s performance utterly sells the first hour-and-a-half of this play. Shambling through various scenes like a worried, polite version of Frankenstein’s monster, Voych always seems faintly embarrassed by his undead state, as if reanimation were the social equivalent of a bad haircut. Behind that, though, lurks the familiar monstrosity we’ve seen in a dozen horror movies, and when Voych attacks a crooked captain selling fake orders and IDs to soldiers, Stoll makes us believe he’s about to pull the guy’s arms off and beat him with them.
Where “Beast” succeeds most is in domestic settings, such as the Motel 6 where the two mutilated soldiers stop to partake of the affections of two blind prostitutes. It’s a highly weird idea, but Weller writes the encounter with an easy naturalism and pauses to break your heart when Voych is alone with his girl, Sherine (given brief, floral life by the marvelous Lisa Joyce). New to tricking, Sherine waits until the senior hooker (Eileen Rivera) has left the room before furtively asking Voych a taboo question: “Am I pretty?” The exchange that follows may be the best in the play.
A scene with Voych’s widow (Joyce again); a conversation with the redneck truck driver (a very funny Jeremy Bobb); some hilarious Mount Rushmore puppets — all these vignettes work perfectly despite drastic tonal shifts. New York Theater Workshop is probably doing this play as well as it can be done, with director Jo Bonney orchestrating the wandering madness with a counterbalancing precision.
But frankly, “Beast” may not be worth the trouble. Weller is not all that interested in soldiers as people; the play’s subject matter demands some kind of respectful examination of militant patriotism, but we never get that. Why did Cato and Voych sacrifice so much for an unjust war? We don’t know. Since Weller realizes we can’t place the blame for the conflict at the soldiers’ feet, he needs a stooge — and he makes a very popular selection.
Weller’s Bush (Butler again, less impressively this time) is a shrill ninny who doesn’t understand the cost of sacrifice and makes half a dozen unselfconscious statements engineered for cheap laughs, which they barely get. The play closes then with a whimper.
Someone needs to spread the word among producers and playhouses that the Bush presidency at this point is spilled milk. Bitching is an inalienable right of playwrights, but there’s plenty to complain about in this brave new world of irresponsible bank loans, nuclear powers-to-be, rumored wars in Eastern Europe, and the strangest presidential election in recent memory. As painful as it may be, all the outraged anti-Bush plays that have piled up in theaters’ literary offices over the last few years should probably go in the circular file, no matter whose name is on them.