Off Broadway Review: ‘War’ by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Austin Durant, Reggie Gowland, Chris Myers, Rachel Nicks, Michele Shay, Lance Coadie Williams, Charlayne Woodard.

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.

Popular on Variety

Off Broadway Review: 'War' by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Claire Tow Theater / Lincoln Center, 112 seats; $30 top. Opened June 6, 2016. Reviewed June 4. Running time: TWO HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production: A Lincoln Center Theater presentation of a Steinberg New Works Program production of a play in two acts, commissioned by Yale Repertory Company, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

Creative: Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Sets, Mimi Lien; costumes, Montana Blanco; lighting, Matt Frey; sound, Bray Poor; production stage manager, Paul Smithyman.

Cast: Austin Durant, Reggie Gowland, Chris Myers, Rachel Nicks, Michele Shay, Lance Coadie Williams, Charlayne Woodard.

More Legit

  • David-Alan-Grier-Blair-Underwood

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood to Star in 'A Soldier's Play' on Broadway

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood will star in a Broadway production of Pulitzer-Prize winning drama “A Soldier’s Play.” The play, written by Charles Fuller, is set in 1944 and follows a murder mystery centered around the death of black Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (played by Grier) who is found on a Louisiana army base. [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Announces Broadway Cast

    After an Olivier-winning run in London, “The Inheritance” is gearing up for its Broadway debut. The two-part epic has set the cast for its transfer from the West End to the Great White Way. John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller are among the cast members reprising their roles [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Announces 2020 National Tour

    ‘Hadestown’, the eight-time Tony award winning Broadway musical, is set for a national tour in 2020. The show will stop in more than 30 cities including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and more. The musical is a stage adaptation of the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and King Hades and his wife [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Listen: Why Jake Gyllenhaal Is His 'Best Self' in the Theater

    Looking for the best possible version of Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ll find it onstage, according to the actor himself. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I am my best self when I’m working in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said on the latest episode Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, on which he appeared with Carrie Cracknell, the director of [...]

  • Photo: Jeremy Daniel

    'The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical' Gets Broadway Run

    “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is Broadway bound. The musical adaptation of the franchise about a teenager who discovers he’s the son of Poseidon hits the Great White Way on Sept. 20 ahead of an Oct. 16 opening night. It comes on the heels of an extensive, nationwide tour that took the show [...]

  • Tom Sturridge Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge Celebrate 'Sea Wall/A Life' With Star-Studded Opening Night

    A star-studded audience looked on as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge returned to the stage for their double monologue performance in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Theater-goers and celebs including Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston and John Mulaney gathered in Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre for opening night, celebrating a show tackling grief, birth and death through the eyes of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content