In writer-director Tim Robbins' satire titled "Embedded," an Actors' Gang production that premiered in Los Angeles and is now playing at the Public Theater, Iraq is called Gomorrah and Baghdad is referred to as Babylon.
The work reflects Robbins' well-known liberal political views, his oft-stated opposition to the war in Iraq and his belief that the White House clique behind Bush's foreign policy carefully controlled reporting of the invasion.
The play opens in New York at a time when Robbins' reputation as a Hollywood star of serious acting achievement has never been greater, having won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar last February for his performance in "Mystic River." His accomplishments as a director are also impressive, and he has been the artistic director of more than 60 plays for the Actors' Gang, founded in 1982 by a group of renegade theater artists.
"Embedded" takes the form of a 90-minute series of vignettes, played without intermission.
There is no plot, but each vignette makes a negative statement about the Iraq war from the viewpoint of the GIs and their families, the U.S. military and its officers, and the men and one woman who make life-and-death decisions for the president with chilling cynicism, quoting neoconservative philosopher Leo Strauss against the musical background of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War."
The members of Bush's evil cabal have suggestive names like Rum Rum, Dick, Gondola, Woof and Pearly White, and their half-masks also give clues as to their real cabinet-level identities, especially the one worn by Kate Mulligan taking the role of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Another thinly disguised role is that of a highly publicized rescued soldier, Private Ryan -- who could only be Jessica Lynch -- played by Kaili Hollister.
There are scenes in which journalists are drilled in the routine of self-censorship by blood-and-guts Colonel Hardchannel, played with macho bravado by V.J. Foster, who also sees that correspondents who report anything unflattering about the war effort are censored. It's hard to dislike Hardchannel, because he's always singing Broadway show tunes under his breath and allows himself an occasional hint of humanity.
There's plenty of comic action, but not much of it seems rooted in meaningful satire. It's like an evening of old "Saturday Night Live" sketches, and the acting is exaggerated in a comic style worthy of a series of student-written college satires that rag the faculty and administration. Now and then there is a touching moment, as when the letters from soldiers to their loved ones at home are read when or Private Ryan is embarrassed by the fuss made over her.
Otherwise, Robbins' play is likely to please the already convinced and displease those who support the president and his war on terror. It is unlikely to change any minds or win the playwright any awards, but it is an occasionally diverting entertainment engagingly staged in a murky gray arena with makeup stands stage right and left where the cast can make quick character changes in full sight of the audience.
Richard Hoover is credited with the minimal stage design and Adam H. Greene with its lighting. Yasuko Takahara's costumes are contemporary and correct in every detail. Others in the cast taking on multiple roles are Brian T. Finney, Toni Torres, Ben Cain, Steven M. Porter, Lolly Ward, Riki Lindhome, Brian Powell, Andrew Wheeler, Jay R. Martinez, and Mark Lewis.
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