As staged by company member Laurie Kladis, War Stories is a fast-moving, fascinating black hole of a play that will suck you into its nihilistic depths. Performed without scenery in a black-painted, brick-walled theater, this tale of a crack addict is fueled by super-charged lead actor Dale Tagtmeyer, who is physically powerful and vocally wide-ranging in his Chicago debut. In a variety of small roles, Dejan Avramovich, Lori Garrabrani, and Nate White match Tagtmeyer's energy and attack, but it's his play both as written and as performed.
He plays Jeff Chase, a 38-year-old crack cocaine user, alcoholic, and sexual compulsive who parades every deceptive, paranoid, and hostile trick in the addict's book without a moment of remorse or justification. Isolated, self-obsessed, and completely predatory, Jeff has no mature or sustained emotional interactions with other people in Alberto Finetti's harrowing script. Indeed, no other characters are developed beyond one dimension, or appear in more than two of the play's 13 scenes.
Instead of relationships, Finetti offers impressions or snapshots of an increasingly vicious life replete with murder, molestation, mayhem, and sex. Although staged without graphic gore or nudity, these scenes are explicit enough and effective. Finetti, Kladis, and the cast appear to have researched meticulously the physical and mental aberrations of addicts, with Finetti wisely understanding that actions often speak louder than words (though the author has also written two splendid--and often funny--drug rants, including Jeff's audition-from-hell for a Shakespearean role). Finetti also has Jeff directly address the audience from time to time, a useful way of distancing viewers from the violence they witness.
The play's subtitle is "a chronology," but it's one that jumps back and forth in time over a span of 29 years. Several scenes reveal Jeff's childhood traumas--an abusive and alcoholic mother, a man who raped him when he was nine--resulting in a lack of self-esteem that leads, of course, to substance abuse. But late in the play, Jeff says these things didn't really happen, and that there is no particular reason for his addiction. "Sometimes nothing at all happens," he comments by way of empty explanation.
It's the absence of excuses, reasons why, or even a sense of escape or empowerment through drugs that makes War Stories nihilistic; a horror achieved, in part, through Finetti's clincial neutrality in observing Jeff's unredeemed ugliness. Thanks in no small part to Tagtmeyer's aggressive work and tough charisma, Jeff is a compelling figure nonetheless.
Jeff's debasement is both appalling and fascinating as he crawls on dirty floors, hunting for dropped crumbs of crack, or jerks off in drag. And Jeff's amorality is alluring--the sheer need for personal survival dictating his actions without any sense of responsibility. Indeed, the power of action alone even seems intoxicating, despite the fact that we know that Jeff has become a sorry sub-human whose days are surely numbered. "Sometimes, you just live after life," he says.
War Stories boasts strong writing and presentation, but is not without flaws. Finetti could gain dramatic tension by cutting repetitive scenes of drug-related street crimes (there are at least four such scenes; two would be enough), and skipping the intermission. Scene Eight is more interesting, insofar as observing Jeff's sexual dysfunction, which is how it begins, than Jeff's attack on the mailman, which is how it ends.
The childhood "flashbacks"--whether true or not--also are problematic. It's always a clumsy convention to have adult actors play children, unless the actors play children for the entire show. Jeff could narrate these scenes, or describe his feelings as they are wordlessly acted out. Kladis errs, too, in compulsively punctuating every scene break with pop or rap music commentaries such as "Rock Bottom." Less would be more.
Without question, however, War Stories is a potent little show full of pithy writing and punchy acting, and with just enough distance to make it both palatable and theatrically interesting to an audience.