'Warplay' Is A Spare, Moving Riff On A Great Greek Love Story
by Jay Barmann
Originally published on SFist
The two men portrayed in Warplay, while ostensibly based on Achilles and his best friend and lover Patroclus, are as much foils for each other as they are romantic partners. Named just A and P in this spare two-person piece by JC Lee, which has just had its world premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center, they are deeply in love and mythically connected, trying at turns to teach other things, express their frustrations, communicate affection, and understand the world and their place in it, together.
The play's 70 minutes are divided into nine chapters, and in them we are mostly listening to A and P interpret their emotions and the fog of war — they allude to a battle of some kind raging somewhere offstage, a war that A alternately refers to as a "game" but which ultimately has a very warlike outcome — in the abstract. We see them meet as children, and we see them as grown men playing with toys in a sandbox at one side of the stage. A tries to teach P how to kill a rabbit, and a string of stuffed bunnies become whimsically symbolic of the carnage going on in the distance, and P's growing sense of his own savage instincts. And throughout, Lee avoids the trap of using the staid, over-formal language we associate with Greek myths, instead treating A and P as contemporary characters in an unnamed place and time.
As A, Ed Berkeley delivers a measured, confident performance that occasionally explodes with brute force. As the more vulnerable — and I think we're meant to see more feminine — P, JD Scalzo is beguiling and almost bipolar, the script demanding that he be constantly shifting across a spectrum of emotions, and he does so with great agility. Under Ben Randle's fine direction, the two engage in a dance that feels emblematic of a lot of gay love stories, or of love stories in general — complete with battles for dominance, struggles with empathy, and frequent bouts of frustration.
All the abstraction, and the fact that we are listening to two characters fret over a connection that we don't necessarily get to understand in its full complexity, can leave one a bit cold at moments. Berkeley and Scalzo's onstage chemistry makes up for some of this, as does a very moving closing sequence that uses that abstract distance to great effect.
Warplay seems to be a meditation on dependence itself, and on connections we can not escape if we tried. Lee's dialogue sparkles with wit and cleverness, and he has an Edward Albee-esque flair for imbuing the mundane with life's greatest mysteries. If two people must go through life, and war, as two halves of a whole, how can they understand themselves without the other? That question maybe the most central to the piece, and writers and poets have been asking it going all the way back to Homer. As Lee implies, it may never get a satisfying answer.
'Warplay' runs through July 2. Find tickets here.