The combined horrors of war and rape are nearly impossible for the uninitiated to imagine and One Night…, a new play commissioned by the Cherry Lane Theatre, makes the reality of these ugly words feel as distant as Sumer. Alicia G. (Rutina Wesley) and Horace Lloyd (Grantham Coleman), two veterans of the Iraq war, arrive at a seedy motel, refugees from a homeless shelter fire. Their room is stained, the TV doesn’t work, and the amorous couplings of others filter crystal clear through a vent in the bathroom. The proprietor’s (Cortez Nance Jr.) sinister sweetness does little to soothe their disgust. But there is little time to mope about the room—they’ve got hallucinations to get to!
Alicia has been rendered helpless by war; shuddering, sputtering, prone to vivid flashbacks and sporadic numerical recitation. While serving in Iraq, she was gang-raped by three fellow soldiers. The two soldiers she managed to identify were lightly reprimanded, the third escaped punishment entirely. Horace tries to keep her sane but he’s got problems of his own. He too suffers flashbacks and his curiously sexless nine-month attachment to Alicia has him itching to desert her. Both of them converse with phantoms and yell prolonged monologues at people who have long since left the room, chasing ghosts and disability payments from their claustrophobic confines. Amid unevenly paced hallucinations, questions of how the shelter fire started and who the mystery rapist may be linger only briefly as the play lumbers towards the most obvious of destinations.
Ms. Wesley fails so wildly at conveying the double dose of trauma that shattered Alicia that she dashes any hope of verisimilitude the moment she arrives on stage. Her perma-twitching brand of madness is the variety found in improv troupes and middle school plays and does little to aid what is supposed to be a serious drama. Mr. Coleman fares a little better when asked to spasm in remembrance of the terrors he’s witnessed. And neither actor is aided by the AV display that represents their flashbacks, superimposed projections that only highlight how false all of this feels. K.K. Moggie and the inappropriately adorable Matthew Montelongo do a decent job of filling out the peripheral roles and Mr. Nance as Meny, the motel owner, is good enough to make one forget what a mess the rest of it is for a line or two. But these three have few chances to salvage One Night…
The actors, however, are not entirely to blame. The play itself presents us with a number of troubling issues but goes no deeper than lines like, “You can’t ask a man to stop being a man just because he wears a uniform.” There is a more interesting play lurking beneath the existing text. Playwright Charles Fuller does a good job illustrating how the transient life of the soldier continues back home, moving from friendly couches to shelters to crappy motels. And when Alicia’s third sexual aggressor is revealed there is a note of codependency in his confession that might have saved this from being an unremarkable affair. But rather than explore this interesting turn, we spend the play’s last segment watching the rapist squirm as justice, in all its contrived glory, finally snatches him.
Mr. Fuller, author of The Brownsville Affair and A Soldier’s Play, is an old hand at exploring race in a military context. He is not quite as adept when it comes to gender inequality. I suspect the play will go over well with well-meaning, middle-aged morality mongers. A self-righteously satisfied hum arose from several audience members when the rapist’s comeuppance commences. But for those of us who like our serious issue plays with a little substance on the side, seeing the abandonment of our veterans and the complicated nature of sexual assault in the armed forces boiled down to a bad man getting spanked is seriously disheartening.