Palace of the End

Whoever said dead men tell no tales hadn't seen "Palace of the End."

'My Name is Earl'

Whoever said dead men tell no tales hadn’t seen “Palace of the End.” Previously living individuals deliver two of the three monologues in Judith Thompson’s Iraq war play (which won this year’s Susan Smith Blackburn Prize), and they each have horrible tales to tell. While the final monologue is arresting enough to make the play worth watching, the biggest stumbling block to the evening’s forward motion is the only still-breathing character, who delivers the first and weakest third of the show.

Lynndie (a badly miscast Teri Lamm) is Lynndie England, the unfortunate-looking soldier pictured giving the thumbs-up sign next to all those naked, humiliated Abu Ghraib prisoners. As “Palace” begins, England is at her desk on a base somewhere, shuffling through a small mountain of paperwork, ordering KFC and trying not to Google herself.

Pretty soon, her resolve breaks and she finds all of the horrible things people have said about her on the Web. She finishes reading the litany of abuse, most of it both absurd and sexual, and pauses. “You must be liberals what wrote them comments on me,” she observes. “Peace pinheads.”

That’s about the extent of Thompson’s insight into England’s character. The Canadian writer illustrates what England did in gleeful detail (with some embellishments of her own), but you can’t write a cruel character a 40-minute speech without eventually wondering why she’s the way she is. When the time comes to ask what made England capable of dragging a naked Muslim man around by a leash like a dog, Thompson feebly suggests that she’s a hick from West Virginia, and that’s all the explanation needed.

It would be interesting (to say nothing of encouraging) at some point to see a play that places the blame on the commanding officers who either sat idly by or actively promoted this sort of behavior among the grunts, but here, “Palace” just indulges in petty red-state-bad recrimination.

The second monologue fares somewhat better — Rocco Sisto plays Welsh U.N. weapons inspector and eventual whistle-blower David Kelly, who is dying, possibly with some help, in Oxfordshire in 2003. Kelly’s story is an interesting one, and Thompson constructs a more nuanced backstory for him, using the despicable (and very real) murders of Iraqi civilians as a springboard for Kelly’s fatal crisis of conscience.

The last and longest piece is both the best and the one that completely jumps the tracks. The astonishing Heather Raffo (“9 Parts of Desire”) plays Nehrjas, an Iraqi woman who suffered intense torture at the hands of the Baathists in the 1960s. Finally, she commands our full attention. Raffo gives such an intense, nuanced performance in the role that it’s impossible to remember the other stories until she’s finished — which is a good thing, since Nehrjas’ sad story is about Iraq, but otherwise unrelated.

Beyond that, though, Raffo is completely charming — something we haven’t seen yet in the play. She describes herself as “an arborist,” and then turns, self-consciously, to the audience.

“Is that the right word?” she asks anxiously. Nobody corrects her. She smiles. “Good for me.”

Good for her indeed. If “Palace of the End” was nothing but this third section, it would be an excellent play with a lot to say about an underexplored period in history. As it is, it’s a painfully mediocre retread of everything everyone thinks about Iraq. But it has a triumphant finale.

Palace of the End

Playwrights Horizons/Peter Jay Sharp Theater; 145 seats; $50 top

  • Production: An Epic Theater Ensemble presentation of a play in one act by Judith Thompson. Directed by Daniela Topol.
  • Crew: Set, Mimi Lein; costumes, Theresa Squire; lighting, Justin Townsend; original music, Katie Down; sound, Ron Russell; projection design, Leah Gelpe; production stage manager, Brenna St. George Jones. Opened June 23, 2008. Reviewed June 21. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.
  • Cast: Lynndie - Teri Lamm Dr. David Kelly - Rocco Sisto Nehrjas Al Saffarh - Heather Raffo