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Peter Morris's play about the Abu Ghraib scandal substitutes wit for real insight. logo
Lee Pace in Guardians
Photo © Brian Michael Thomas
In the song "The Last of the Famous International Playboys," British pop star Morrissey sang, "I never wanted to kill. I am not naturally evil. Such things I do just to make myself more attractive to you." These lyrics are helpful in understanding the two characters in Peter Morris's Guardians, a problematic paean to American soldier/Abu Ghraib-torturer Lynndie England and the still unknown tabloid prevaricator who faked photos of British soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees.

The play is structured as parallel, alternating monologues. It begins in the office of English Boy (Lee Pace), an ambitious journalist who's busy trying to invent a story that will enhance his career. He would prefer to serve the political left, and his dream is to be a columnist for the London newspaper The Guardian, but he'll take any opportunity that he can get.

It turns out that English Boy is gay and has quite a taste for S&M: When he tells a story about spanking his submissive boyfriend, he quips, "It's hard to be an English stereotype." Though he's referring to the bloke at the other end of the paddle, the description applies equally to himself -- a charming, handsome, irresponsible British scamp. In the end, he figures out how his kink can be turned into a career opportunity, and he finds some soldiers who are willing to participate in a very unusual photo shoot. Fully acknowledging that he has no principles, he goes to absurd lengths to prove that the same is true of all journalists. Indeed, he describes his office as a place where the mere mention of 9/11 sends his colleagues into fits of laughter.

Meanwhile, the American Girl (Katherine Moennig) who is clearly meant to be Lynndie England talks about how she became the face of sadism in her country. While most intelligent people realize that England has become a media scapegoat for all of the torture at Abu Ghraib, she is not the martyr that this play makes of her. Toward the end of the play, the American Girl literally points a finger at the audience and asks how we can judge her from the safety of our civilian homes. She also delivers a minute-long tirade in which she contends that "only following orders" is a reasonable excuse for her actions, and insists that she will eventually be seen as "a hero." Though she blames the Bush administration for what happened in Iraq, she lets George W. off the hook by claiming that he's a "marionette" controlled by "money." So, is no one to blame?

During this show's run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the British Theatre Guide called it "enjoyable." Without question, Morris is clever enough to make the American Girl spout one-liners that keep us laughing. But is it appropriate to turn these sad characters into affable comedians? That's a definite fault here, though it lies more in the script than in Jason Moore's smooth direction.

Pace, an Obie-wining actor and a past Golden Globe nominee, wins our sympathy with his relaxed, easy charisma. Moennig, best known for her work as Shane on the Showtime series The L Word, suffers a bit from her lack of stage technique and too often indicates the character's emotions. Still, she has a nice rapport with the audience; when her character made a Bush joke at one point, a theatergoer cheered and the actress ad-libbed an appropriate response.

Make no mistake: We need theater that forces Americans and Britons to confront the horrors of torture and the serious subject of media corruption. But Guardians, instead of shaking us out of our complacency, simply stokes our liberal guilt.

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