The War Plays
The War Plays Credit: John Tyler Core

The War Plays Strange Tree Group

Between September 1940 and May 1941 hundreds of Nazi bombers and fighter planes appeared night after night in the skies above London, as they did over about two dozen other cities. Huge swaths of the capital were reduced to rubble and tens of thousands were killed. Reporting from central London in December 1940, legendary journalist Ernie Pyle described waves of planes appearing in the sky every two minutes. “You have all seen big fires,” he wrote, “but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires—scores of them, perhaps hundreds.” He called it “the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known.”

The London Blitz: just the sort of thing theater companies should play cute.

In mounting Emily Schwartz’s sketchy, cliche-ridden The War Plays, the Strange Tree Group goes one better and plays the Blitz incoherent and cute. This may be the biggest programming blunder since the now-defunct Remains Theater lost its shirt with John Guare’s execrable Moon Under Miami back in 1995.

The confusion begins when something called the Allied Orchestra assembles in the former bar at the Athenaeum Theatre, their brief musical set introduced as “the show before the show.” Given their period costumes, the Britishy accent of one of the singers, and the list of air raid safety rules printed in the program, it seems safe to assume we’re supposed to be in London during the Blitz. But the band’s second number is Johnny Mercer’s “G.I. Jive,” written in 1943—two years after the Blitz ended. It doesn’t help that the instrumentalists—a bizarre combo of cello, accordion, French horn, and poorly tuned guitar—play muddy, ragged, swing-free arrangements that all but drown out the singers.

Then an air raid siren sounds (OK, maybe we are supposed to be in London during the Blitz), and we’re told to hurry into the theater where, inexplicably, we’ll be safer. The matter is so urgent that before we evacuate the bar a bunch of men spend a couple minutes singing a nice ditty about air raid safety.

Once we’re in the theater, a fictive performing troupe, which we might logically imagine to be made up of Brits, take their places on a set representing a London subway station and enact a saccharine scene about teenagers trying to fall in love during a raid in November 1940. (She’s a no-nonsense American, bitter that her mother was killed on the first night of the Blitz. He’s a starry-eyed Brit who finds the war terribly romantic and has “made up my mind to be completely in love.”) So . . .it’s two months into a nine-month bombing campaign that all but flattens London, and this troupe has found the time, resources, and interest to rehearse a little play about it? Really?

No, as it turns out, not really. The band then launches into Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” to which a young American soldier and his date dance. It’s his last night before he’s to be shipped overseas. Since America got into the war at the end of 1941, the Blitz must be long over—plus the song was written in 1945. He naively thinks he has to pay her to be his date. She wants romance. When their schematic, mercifully brief scene is interrupted by a power outage due to an air raid, one is tempted to wonder whether Schwartz or director Kate Nawrocki ever stopped to think about crazy stuff like internal logic.

Schwartz doesn’t find much weighty material until her final scene, in which a wounded American World War II veteran reunites with his brother’s former fiancee. The brother died in the war, and now the vet must face fallout from the romance he began with her before his brother went to war. There’s enough here to build a full-length play around, yet Schwartz gives the lovers about ten minutes together. She devotes most of the scene to a cloying exchange between the vet and his roué buddy who can’t take the hint that it’s time for their extended visit to somebody’s—maybe the veteran’s—country estate to end.

The charitable thing would be to see The War Plays as an impressionistic take on love during wartime—space, time, and cogency warped in service of deeper truths about romance struggling amid the carnage. But the thinness of the material doesn’t justify such a massive suspension of disbelief.

After the Blitz, London was rebuilt in short order. I wonder if Strange Tree Group’s reputation will recover as quickly.   v

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