nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 9, 2011
Stephen Gracia's new play Next is fascinating. It's set during World War II, and it captures what's ugly and scary and universal about war; it pushes into the souls of its disparate characters to explore what unites them, and reminds us that the thing we are all finally looking for is often most elusive. It's been given a splendid production by director Michael LoPorto that renders the work vivid and sublime in the very intimate downstairs space at HERE.
Next is in two acts (though presented without intermission). In the first part, a group of soldiers wait on line for their turn with a prostitute, hired by the Army as a morale booster. (There are actually many such lines, apparently; we are eavesdropping on one group of G.I.'s who are preparing for their encounter with a French hooker.)
It's a bizarre, almost surreal situation—did this kind of thing ever actually happen during WWII?—and Gracia and LoPorto exploit the artificiality of the premise to bare the hearts and minds of eight disparate soldiers. They're archetypal, but they never feel that way; instead, they feel very real, very alive; guys who could be us: there's a bully with an inflated ego, a loquacious wiseguy with an answer to anything, an over-confident snob, an African American soldier (who is more or less ordered to get into another line by the lieutenant in charge), a Jewish guy who wears the anti-Semitic cracks he constantly hears on his sleeve. And there is, inevitably, an innocent farm boy; he takes a heap of ribbing from the other guys for being a virgin in this first section of Next—and becomes the central figure of the second, very different section that follows.
Act Two takes us inside the hooker's trailer, during the prolonged encounter between Danny, the farm boy I just told you about, and the prostitute, whom he christens Madeline (she refuses to reveal her real name). This half of the play turns what precedes it upside down and inside out, dissecting not the barriers we erect that keep us proud in times of stress but rather the hope of tearing down such barriers, to find strength in caring, compassion, and another human being. The two scenes feel staggeringly different but are somehow complementary, and make for a powerful theatrical event when experienced together.
Gracia is uncompromising in his depiction of how men hurt each other: there's fighting, both of the horsing-around variety and more serious stuff; there's lots of ugly, angry language—racial epithets, anti-Semitic jokes and threats, objectification of women, homophobic panic/hate talk all over the place. LoPorto is no less frank in his staging: two of the actors stand naked (their private parts covered by their hands) for an uncomfortably long time as they wait their turn with the "whore." All the rawness is by design, and somehow it succeeds at not feeling sensational or gratuitous but instead revelatory and, ultimately, kind of cathartic.
The cast is exemplary. Kendra Leigh Landon, the lone woman in the company (as Madeline) makes a strong impression, especially after a pivotal exchange where her character, at long last, literally lets her hair down to expose something true within herself. As Danny, John Weisenburger is extremely effective, conveying the innocence, anxiety, and inner strength of this young man. Ridley Parson is the Lieutenant, who also serves as narrator/guide for the piece. The other soldiers are portrayed by Kasidy Devlin, Charles Everett, Matthew Ferretti, John Harlacher, Sean Meehan, Sean Mellott, and Christopher Tocco—each successfully creating a singular, memorable character, yet uniting as a chorus that is greater in impact than their individual parts.
The design is by Tom Lenz (sets), Josh Starr (lighting), Andrea Varga (costumes), and Tim Fite (sound and music); these elements support the work masterfully, with stark generality in Act I and loving detail in Act II. This study of contrasts is kind of remarkable theatre, certainly the kind that sticks with you long after you've experienced it. I will look forward to what's next from these creators of Next.