- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

Transforming a theatrical stage into a jungle war zone is one of many dramatic leaps of faith a new production of Arthur Laurents' "Home of the Brave" takes with alacrity.
What the adroit production can't hurdle, though, is the playwright's inconsistent narrative and a lead character whose occasional whining undermines the traumas thrust upon him.
"Home of the Brave," presented by the American Century Theater and Washington Jewish Theatre at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, portrays a shellshocked World War II soldier paralyzed by the twin demons of war and anti-Semitism.
Mr. Laurents' "Brave," the first work in a career that later would produce the books for "Gypsy" and "West Side Story," illustrates the promise of Mr. Laurents' talents and his early limitations.
The production dangles hints of its anti-Semitic raison d'etre during its gripping first act. The moments cut through the horror of war, illuminating prejudices facing put-upon soldier Coney (Michael Laurino).
The bulk of the narrative, told in flashback, follows a covert mission to map a Pacific island for Allied troops ready to land on its shores.
The mission's many quiet moments give the small band of soldiers time to ruminate on the class divisions that separate them.
We first meet Coney, a soft-spoken Jewish solider, as a patient at an Army medical base. Unable to move his legs but without injury, Coney is coaxed by his doctor to relive his war memories to assuage his psychological wounds.
Much of "Brave" is presented amid dramatic lighting, although never so precious that it disrupts the narrative flow. Flickering, ominous images of soldiers and foliage echo the chaos roiling in the protagonist's head.
For all its moments of genuine tension, the play can't help but flirt with war cliches. Coney and Finch (Jon Cohn) plan to open a restaurant together after the war. Mingo (Tim Getman) isn't as loyal as he leads his cohorts to believe.
The greatest fear one harbors about "Brave" might be the sight of five grown men unconvincingly playing Army. Instead, director Benjamin Fishman evokes a genuine camaraderie from his crew, and each member, in turn, handles his weapons and mock duties with the requisite solemnity.
Mr. Fishman also coaxes animated performances out of the five actors, most notably Mr. Getman's Mingo. In fact, the production boasts nary a misstep, from its able performers to the evocations of war created by set and light designer Marc A. Wright.
The unseen Japanese troops draw constant cries from the island's native birds, a chilling reminder of an enemy too close for comfort.
The set, an amorphous series of steps and hills, provides just enough to capture the unconventional war fields on which the group finds itself.
Less obvious but equally rich is Mr. Fishman's stirring sense of composition. He organizes his characters on the stage to create one arresting image upon another, lending somber moments a dignity.
Mr. Laurents' prose nails the many absurdities of war. T.J. (Arthur J.G. Rosenberg) can't restrain himself from spilling Jewish slurs when the conversations heat up. Yet Coney, a lifelong victim of such wrongheaded taunts, teases Finch by calling him an Arizona hayseed, oblivious to the irony.
Coney's occasional whining, possibly the result of internalized loathing, lends him a somewhat unsympathetic pall. Still, Mr. Laurino gives a grounded performance, anchoring a difficult portrait of a soldier flirting with enemies on both sides of his barrel.
Attempting a small-scale production centered on a reconnaissance mission is the kind of risk independent theaters should not take lightly.
The decision pays off with "Brave," and no amount of pat psychological musings can camouflage its noble attempt to revive Mr. Laurents' overlooked play.

** 1/2
WHAT: "Home of the Brave"
WHERE: Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, 6125 Montrose Road, Rockville
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays.
TICKETS: $11 to $28
PHONE: 301/230-3775 or www.americancentury.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS



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