Pvt. Wars began its theatrical career in 1979 as a comedy in one act about three GIs recovering from Vietnam injuries, who while away their time on the terrace of an army hospital. Perhaps spurred on by the success of his one hit, Lone Star, playwright James McLure chose to lengthen Pvt. Wars to two acts. He should have quit while he was ahead. Despite the best efforts of an able cast and director, Pvt. Wars never comes together either as a comedy or as a cogent reflection on the Vietnam experience.
Each of the three characters — Silvio, played by Sean Jackson; Gately, played by Sean O’Shea; and Natwick, played by George Coe — is a caricature, so superficial that to call them shallow would be misleading, as it implies some depth. All are supposedly fighting their “private wars” as a result of physical and mental wounds suffered in combat, yet the play is entirely devoid of specific references to the war. What’s left is a hodgepodge of warmed-over routines from vaudeville and ideas borrowed from other light entertainment.
Silvio’s wound is the most graphic and provides the play with its central ironic revelation, an entirely implausible scenario that would never have made it past the first round of comments in a basic writing workshop. Jackson struts and shouts and gesticulates to little effect, as we have seen this copycat cocky Italian stallion hundreds of times before. O’Shea tries valiantly to bring some kind of reality to Gately, the simple fellow with a heart of gold who anchors the piece, but by the second or third round of “Isn’t it ironic how Gately’s overly literal misunderstandings lay bare the pretenses of the other characters?” there’s no place for him to go but back to Forrest Gump class by way of Gomer Pyle. Gol-ly!
Writing plays is like tightrope walking in at least one sense — it’s dangerous to spend too much time looking down. McLure condescends to every one of these characters, even Natwick, the suspiciously effete upper-class wannabe poet. Coe has some fun with Natwick’s physicality, but when it comes time to deliver his lines, the result is pure Stewie Griffin and not what was intended, whatever that is. This is the third time that director Bill Egan has done this show in the area, and it is well past time for him to move on. Lines about things like “faggy looking” shoes were unacceptable in the 1980s and just embarrassing now. McLure’s writing is so sloppy that even his outright thefts fall apart. He borrows an anecdote from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and gets it precisely wrong, and when Natwick steps in front of the assembled patients in the army hospital to introduce the evening’s move with a full martini glass, he does so as a patient rather than the doctor that M*ASH’s Hawkeye Pierce was, thus decimating the credibility of the play’s fundamental setup, which is that these men are mental patients. We may well have a lot to learn from lovable loonies, but when it comes to producing professional theater in 2015, there’s got to be some better way to do so.