Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
Vincent Delaney's war drama, "Kuwait" is both larger and smaller than it ought to be. It began as an award-winning ten minute play, and has now been expanded into a full-length (90 minute) one-act. Essentially a two-person play, it is a "captive drama", in which a young soldier holds a news-reporter prisoner, after she has left the unit where she was officially embedded in order to freely explore the battlezone. Blindfolded and bound, she is unable to see where she is or what they're doing (like the society to whom she reports), and when she is finally given back her sight, it is in order to witness evidence of an atrocity her captor committed previously. The soldier, having brought her to this literally buried admission of his most soul-destroying crime, then surrenders himself as a prisoner of war to his own troops.
Most of the play concerns the soldier's attempt to advance without any sense of his direction, and to serve a mission without any real understanding of what it is, or why he carries it out. He is, for the purposes of the play, the American military in Kuwait. She is, for the purposes of the play, all that we don't know back home about the war and its conduct. That's part of the problem of the play, in that the symbolic roles of these two individuals, representing the military and civilian society, are a bit too obvious. In that sense, it attempts to be entirely too large for what is basically an intimate drama between two people.
The essential drama between captive and captor is one of a shifting balance of power, with the captor always holding the overt, physical advantage and the captive having to devise or manipulate some other, compensatory strength. Otherwise, it is not conflict but simply domination. The character of Rachel, the high-power reporter, lacks sufficient ingenuity and resilience to keep the conflict balanced, and too often we simply see anger, indignation, petulance or acquiescence. Although Kelly Kitchens plays the role with both the strength and vulnerability it requires, the script fails to convince us that a woman of considerable worldly experience and substantial intelligence would be unable to manipulate an essentially ordinary soldier more to her advantage. Seasoned combat reporters are masters of situational adaptation, of improvisational self-reliance, and of forging alliances and cooperative agreements to gain information and access. They are professional manipulators, and this reporter shows very little of that sort of skill, instead arguing on the most superficial level simply for greater comfort.
The soldier, Kelsey, is well-played by David Hogan, but again seemed both too contrived and inconsistently developed. There was nice variation between a combat hardened fighter and a kid lost in a very big sandbox, a killer capable of exterminating "bad guys" and a young man who hasn't even known the love of a woman. Again, though, because it was obvious he was supposed to be representing all of the troops in Kuwait, I found myself wanting his experience to be more particular, more specific to this war and this set of political circumstances. Instead, he had a kind of generic every-soldier quality that made this a story that could, save for a very few details, have taken place in practically any battle of practically any war in the past century. There is a point where universality loses out to the indistinct.
Two additional characters, an officer orienting us to the circumstances of the war and another journalist who is partly responsible for Rachel's capture, were theatrically obtrusive and minimally effective. Well played, Terri Weagant could do little more with the role than make her a stern, no-nonsense functionary transforming the action we are seeing into a PowerPoint demonstration of troop maneuvers. Rebecca Olson had an even more impossible job trying to make a bubblehead media-Barbie into a compelling character. The failure for both of these roles was in the conception and writing, not in the performance.
Ultimately, the problem with "Kuwait" is that it feels like didactic playwriting, a discourse designed around action meant to demonstrate a thesis, and not an organic experience of two distinct individuals in a dramatic situation. There is much more here than a ten minute play can contain, but much less than a full play requires. In spite of handsome production values, solid and nicely focused directing by Braden Abraham, and the good work of the ensemble, the substance of this play, the reason that should make it clear why we need to know this story, slips through our hands like so much sand.