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Arts and Entertainment

American Warriors in Iraq in Two New Plays

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Brian Norris and Andrew Price in 'The Woodpecker'

Brian Norris and Andrew Price in 'The Woodpecker'
The high price of heroism for U.S. enlisted men in Iraq is explored in two very different plays that opened in small LA theaters last weekend.

In Samuel Brett Williams's The Woodpecker, Jimmy (Brian Norris), a facially disfigured glue-sniffing college dropout who lives in a trailer park with his grossly dysfunctional parents, prays that heading off to war will give him the chance to become a hero. But once he hits the ground and gets assigned to help soften up prisoners for interrogation and torture, he quickly recognizes that the army is offering him nothing but more personal abasement.

The three U.S. marines in Aaron Kozak's The Birthday Boys, captured by an Iraqi militia group and tossed into a desert warehouse blindfolded, their hands and feet bound together with duct tape, are burdened with no such moral conflicts. But they do face almost certain execution within 24 hours. (And to add to the foreboding, the ostensibly unrelated production playing right after The Birthday Boys in the same theater each evening just happens to be titled Everybody Dies in the End.)

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Most of The Woodpecker's sharpest dialogue is delivered by Jimmy's two brutal antagonists. In the first act his wheelchair-bound army vet father (Mark Withers) is an unregenerate bully, tyrannizing the household and even threatening God with violence in heaven if Jimmy doesn't get back from Iraq alive before bitterly concluding his prayer, "All right, that's it, Lord. You can go back to ruinin' people's lives now." After intermission, Jimmy's charismatically sadistic military superior (Andrew Price) has fun toying and messing with a captured terrorist sympathizer, explaining to Jimmy, "It's not about oil and it's not about 9/11. [We do this] because we're human and because we can."

All three of the marine hostages in The Birthday Boys (Gregory Crafts, Sean Fitzgerald, and Jim Martyka) spend most of the play writhing, or "scootching," around the stage with their eyes covered, their limbs immobilized and useless. Which is not only scary and suspenseful--although it is both of these--but often very funny, as is much of the locker room-type banter they engage in as they try to determine what's going to happen to them and make sense of how they ended up in the position they're in. Once the coolly menacing lead Iraqi captor (Gabriel Reed) arrives, however, and the electrodes and scimitars the hostages had just been grimly joking about become a present physical reality, their honor and mettle are soon put to a real test.

As The Birthday Boys is an apolitical paean to the valor of U.S. troops at war, The Woodpecker presents a searing indictment of an American aggressiveness that begins at home and then gets wreaked upon our military victims abroad. From each of their opposed perspectives, however, both plays thankfully avoid preaching or propagandizing. The Birthday Boys is a high-tension, clock-ticking-away dramatic thriller with an ending that (like it or not) you'll never guess. The Woodpecker is more a classic character-is-fate social tragedy, driven by compellingly watchable performances from Withers and Price and solidly centered by Norris. You won't go wrong with either one.

The Woodpecker, directed by Jon Cohn, plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 7 through April 3rd at the Studio/Stage Theatre, 520 N. Western Blvd. Tickets $12.00 through the LA Stage Alliance, $13.50 on goldstar, $20.00 at the door, and $22.00 on the Mutineer Theatre Company web site.

The Birthday Boys, directed by Jacob Smith, plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 through March 26th at NoHo Stages, 4934 Lankershim Blvd. Tickets $9.50 through the LA Stage Alliance, $10.50 on goldstar, $15.00 at the door, and $17.00 on the Theatre Unleashed company web site.