By Frank D. Gilroy
Directed by Chris Smith
Ensemble Studio Theatre / 549 West 52nd Street / (212) 581-9409

Reviewed by David Spencer

Perhaps the most compelling accolade one can give Frank D. Gilroy’s latest play, "Contact with the Enemy" is that it is a little over an hour long, and you can spend the rest of the evening in passionate debate about it.

Set in 1993, the premise is deceptively simple. Two veterans of World War II, a businessman (Nesbitt Blaisdell) and a writer (Christopher Murney) meet by chance in front of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. In short order, they realize they knew each other once, having served in the same army division—and been among the soldiers to liberate one of the lesser-known camps, Ohrduf-Nord. As they enter the museum, examine the exhibits, eventually find their recollections solicited by the guide (Kathryn Gayner) and recorded by the volunteer historian (Cynthia Hayden), uncomfortable echoes of those events cause unexpected, long-suppressed revelations to rise to the surface—one in particular quite devastating.

The play asks the question: are all men capable of the violence perpetrated by the Nazis, given the right set of circumstances, the right pressures, the right convenient excuses, the right rationalizations in moments of fear, passion, anger, the imperative to survive? Gilroy doesn’t duck the question, and the answer he provides—though perhaps not surprising—is nonetheless plenty sobering.

What is surprising is the total level of immersion the production gives the audience. On EST’s postage stamp stage, the piece, under Chris Smith’s almost invisible direction, is played for absolute verisimilitude. The meeting of these two old veterans, the development of their relationship, is done so subtly, so beautifully, and with such a casual lack of ceremony or theatrical event, that within five minutes you truly do forget this is a play. It’s not a play in any visceral sense. Your brain tells you it’s a fictional constuct; your senses tell you you’re eavesdropping on an intimate reacquaintance.

Of course, having actors as accomplished and rock-steady as the Mssrs. Murney and Blaisdell hurts not at all. They virtually define the joy of watching old pros. In the smaller roles of the museum workers, the aforementioned women maintain their part of the illusion just as well—Cynthia Hayden as the formidable and forbidding historian especially.

If I have any carp about the play it might be that the devastating revelation, when it comes, isn’t the shocker the playwright might mean it to be. I think once his narrative ducks are in a row, and once he has firmly established the moral dilemma, most astute audience members understand that there’s really only one "dark secret" possible, under the circumstances. But at least the set-up develops gradually, and if you do find yourself ahead, the lead time is not so long as to seem attenuated.

And of course, given the central issues, a plot turn, a reversal of expectation, is merely a tool, not the point of the exercise. The point is something more human, more internal, more consequential.

Which is facing the real-life possibility that Walt Kelly was actually right when he said: "We have met the enemy, and he is us…"

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