nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 12, 2008
Jimmy Cato is a young American G.I. (Private First Class) who is on his way home after being badly wounded in Iraq. At the hospital in Germany, he tells a lieutenant: "I'm a hero. I did what my Commander in Chief ordered me to do. I don't want pity. I want fucking respect. Respect and thanks." And then, to a photo of a man that playwright Michael Weller simply calls "GW," Cato says: "I wish I could do more, sir. That's what kills me—I've run outta useful."
Jimmy goes on a sort of odyssey in the play, from the German hospital to Mount Rushmore to Crawford, Texas, with a few stops in between. He's accompanied by his comrade-in-arms (and commanding officer) Benjamin Voychevsky, who rises out of his coffin at the very beginning of the play and indeed appears to be dead (a zombie?) despite his ability to walk and talk and think hard and painfully about what's happened to him and what's ahead.
Beast is subtitled "A Fever Dream in Six Scenes," and Jimmy Cato is the dreamer. But most of the play paints a portrait of our nation's collective feverish nightmare, the one that's resulted from this ill-advised war we find ourselves mired in, the one that far too many of us remain insulated from because this war exists at such a remove from most of us. So we meet a spectacularly avaricious black market arms dealer and a pair of blind prostitutes who service mutilated veterans. And we meet Voychevsky's widow, Bonnie Ann, who is trying to figure out how to find enough money to save her house:
Like I told them other guys, just be sure the loan people don't take our home because you told us he'd have two tours max and they held his job open here and everything, but the Home Equity people you sent us to for the loan, the ones near the base with the smiley face house on the sign out front, they put a time thing on the repayment and it come up right in the middle of his third tour, and the loan people started repossess proceedings which they promised they wouldn't when we signed the paperwork because my husband is a hero, so that's really all I'm saying; don't let them take our house.
Collateral damage indeed: Weller exposes and explores a United States that's kept well-hidden from most folks. It makes Beast's first act powerfully intense; almost frightening to watch—a fever dream that's also a wakeup call.
Unfortunately, Weller does not sustain the level of engagement in the second act, in which Cato and Voychevsky head to the President's ranch with a scheme to win the war. The issues here are too complicated to fit neatly into the grim satirical shell that Weller provides in this half of the play; there's no way whatever Voychevsky suggests can live up to its promise, and it doesn't. (Dan Butler's tepid portrayal of "GW" doesn't help matters any.)
So ultimately Beast is disappointingly flawed, but its first act is so essential and brave, and so well-crafted a modern-day horror story, that I think it tips the balance in favor of my suggesting that you see the play for yourself and decide what you think about it all.
Jo Bonney's staging feels to me like it's constantly battling and shrinking from the potent message Weller wants to impart, with lots of distractingly loud transitions between scenes (featuring very low-tech scenery shifting, usually in front of the humongous wall that runs across the stage and defines Eugene Lee's overpowering set design). The cast of seven, excepting Butler's turn as the Bush character, is fine, and Logan Marshall Green and especially Corey Stoll (as Cato and Voychevsky, respectively) are exceptional. Kudos, too, to Nathan Johnson, who has created makeup for both of these actors that lets us see what war does to young men, unflinchingly and unsensationally.