Harm’s Way is one of those plays that may get knocked as an excessively political play (or not political enough, by some standards). It may get knocked for the occasional clichéd line by playwright Shem Bitterman, or for being too long, or for being too unbelievable. I may have a hard time defending against any of those arguments, but I will refuse to budge in calling Harm’s Way a play of absolute vitality with a quick-witted intelligence, as close to Greek or Shakespearean tragedy as it is to current events.
Yes, some of the characters have archetypal qualities. But every one has a vitality and humanity that overcomes a lot of shortcomings. Deeply disturbed and sexually abused Bianca (Sarah Foret) may have simplistic dialogue, but it belies her inability to communicate on a human level. Stupid, ox-like private Nick (Ben Bowen), a confused, disturbed and frequently violent individual, is something of an existential hero.
And emasculated military prosecutor Major Jonathan Fredericks (Jack Stehlin), utterly defenseless against the circumstances of his life, is one of the most pathetic military officers you’ll ever see in a play. Fredericks’ values and commitment to the greater good—whatever that may be—are as strong as any good soldier's. By taking the muscle away from military might, Bitterman has shown military bravado for what is it: a thinly veiled farce which sounds stupid and absurd when uttered by a man without a gun in his hand.
The problem that keeps Harm’s Way from reaching the heights I fully believe it capable of achieving is a lackluster production from Circus Theatricals. I was surprised by just how uninspired the cast seemed to be, especially since their credentials far exceeded the average for off-off-Broadway. Also, Harm’s Way has multiple lines that border on cheesiness and cliché. With the right actors and direction, the power of the play’s deeper implications could overcome these problems. But the cast, helmed by director Steve Zuckerman, seems utterly lost about how to convey any of the play’s nuance, and looks like it is going through the motions. That’s bad in any play; in a play like Harm’s Way, which needs an enthusiastic cast to succeed, it’s a tragedy in its own right.
The major exception in terms of the cast was relative novice Sarah Foret (Bianca) who came up with a fantastic portrayal as the damaged, not-right-in-the-head army base brat. Foret is the only actor in the New York production with a consistent view of her character’s mindset. It would be easy to play a simple character simply, but Foret adds a level of maturity to Bianca’s damaged soul that gives the play a significant bump. The twist at the end of the first act, for instance, would seem contrived in a less capable actor’s hands. Foret shows just how much a strong actor can contribute to this play, and embarrasses the rest of the cast with her commitment.
As the tough war journalist Connie, Wendy Makkena gives perhaps the most human performance, but her role doesn’t gain enough traction for it to make a significant impact on the play overall. That could be a fault of the playwright, but it wouldn’t be as much of an issue if Stehlin’s performance wasn’t so maddeningly wooden, or if Josh Allen wasn’t so stupidly over the top as Nick’s war buddy Sammy. As the supervising Colonel, Eric Pierpoint delivers his lines flatly, as if we should already know them. That kind of performance is fine for a minor Shakespeare role, perhaps, but not for a role in a new play that is suppose to command authority.
Ultimately, Harm’s Way will not get the traction it deserves, and that’s largely because of a cast and crew that seems more disappointed in itself than committed to the task at hand. Bitterman will have to find a better group of actors to work with in the future, or else he will go criminally unnoticed.
Harm's Way by Shem Bitterman; directed by Steve Zuckerman; sets and costumes by Kitty Rose; lighting by Derrick McDaniel; original music by Roger Bellon. Photos by Jeannine Stehlin
Starring Josh Allen (Sammy Havesford), Ben Bowen (Private Nick Granville), Sarah Foret (Bianca Fredericks), Eric Pierpont (Colonel Hank Davis), Wendy Makkena (Connie Durrell), and Jack Stehlin (Major Jonathan Fredericks).
Presented by Circus Theatricals at the 45th Street Theatre, 354 W. 45th St., NYC. Oct. 18-Nov. 8. Playing in repertory with "Man. Gov." Thu. and Sat., 8 p.m. (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com.