Battle Ready

Photo: PA/Courtesy of St. Ann's Warehouse

Fast, loud, funny, and profane, Black Watch is the kind of play that even its subjects might enjoy. Three years ago, a researcher ventured into a pub to ask a Scottish veteran about his experiences in Iraq. Because she was hot (or so the play implies), a bunch of the soldier’s friends showed up for the next interview, only to be greeted by a reedy male playwright with a messenger bag. (“He looks like a poof” sums up their response.) Yet Gregory Burke survived this bait-and-switch, and came away loaded with stories of the 300-year-old regiment that fought bravely in Iraq only to be folded into another unit on its return home.

The National Theatre of Scotland has taken over what feels like a couple of acres of St. Ann’s Warehouse, running a long, narrow stage between two facing banks of seats. As the action ricochets from a pub in Fife to a god-awful desert camp outside Fallujah, the soldiers brawl, watch porn, curse—boy, do they curse—and occasionally open up. A little. The combination of interviews, invented scenes, and the occasional song doesn’t fit into any of the neat little boxes in which war stories usually reside. Though the play shows great affection for the troops, Burke makes no effort to prettify their faults; while it makes the bungling of the Iraq war vividly clear, it never suggests that these guys are innocents led to slaughter—a depiction that they would take as an insult. “I want you to fucking know. I wanted to be in the army,” says one of the soldiers early on. “I could have done other stuff. I’m not a fucking knuckle-dragger.”

On the contrary, the troops (played by a gifted, athletic cast of ten) feel pride—fierce, sustaining pride—in the Black Watch and its long tradition. In the show’s signature sequence, Cammy (Paul Rattray) narrates the entire history of the regiment while being carried, twirled, and turned upside down by his pals as they dress him in the uniforms of successive centuries. It sets him up, near the end, to make a mature and devastating argument for the damage this war has done to the men and women who agree to risk their lives defending us. He doesn’t object to going to war and fighting, he objects to going to war and not fighting: “Getting mortared all the time. Getting fucking ambushed. Getting killed by suicide bombers. And for what?”

For a play this political, Black Watch couldn’t feel less didactic. Burke’s sense of humor is too sharp for that, and John Tiffany’s direction is too all-around masterful. Here, you think, is a director who decided he’d press every key, pedal, and knob to see what sounds he could get the organ to make. His effortless use of projections (as when the soldiers watch giant videos of American planes bombing a village) makes the show contemporary; his mix of explosions with quiet moments makes you feel not that you’re watching a battle (as good war movies do) but that you’re practically in the middle of one—you jump when the bombs go off. The show stumbles into arty choreography now and then (some kind of sign-language routine when the mail arrives, for instance). Still, this seems merely a spillover of theatrical energy, far easier to forgive than its opposite.

On the chance that Black Watch left you feeling hopeful about humanity, you’ll find a potent corrective in The Overwhelming, J. T. Rogers’s unnerving new play about the Rwandan genocide (at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre). An American political scientist has gone to Africa searching for his old college roommate, a doctor who has disappeared (and is played by the trim Ron Cephas Jones, showing even more of his astounding range). As the researcher’s new wife and disaffected son tangle with inscrutable diplomats and locals, the play makes a major point of our national naïveté.

More important, it is a clear-eyed dissection of how fear and recrimination spark atrocities. By thinking themselves victims, the Hutus justified the murder of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in 1994. “Never again,” we like to say. But it’s happened in Srebrenica, Darfur, Baghdad, and God only knows where else since. Rogers’s play can be slow going at times, but he builds to such a bleakly convincing picture of why we do evil things to one another that all you remember afterward is the despair.

Black Watch
By Gregory Burke. St. Ann’s Warehouse. Through November 11.

The Overwhelming
By J.T. Rogers. Laura Pels Theatre. Through December 23.

Battle Ready