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Robert Montano and Michael Cullen in One Shot, One Kill
(Photo: Marvin Einhorn)
The Bush administration has remained noticeably vague about what is being done internationally to flush out Osama bin Laden's terrorists, perhaps because those responsible for the operation aren't making that much headway against Al Qaeda. At least one playwright, however, has some ideas about specific steps that might currently underway.

In his tough, taut, up-to-the-minute new drama, One Shot, One Kill, Richard Vetere makes the assumption that steel-tempered marksmen trained in the (very real) United States Marine Scout/Sniper School at Quantico, Virginia are being dispatched to camouflaged spots near enemy camps around the globe. These are men who, when their designated targets come into view, are expected to achieve the "one shot, one kill" results advertised in Vetere's title.

The playwright focuses on two men who are meant to represent the dedicated, perhaps compulsive, many. To scrutinize the damage that may inevitably be done to those trained as never-miss killers, and also to those who train them, Vetere introduces Sergeant Nick Harris and Major Mark Royce. Harris is a young marine of brilliant potential whom Royce has singled out to off a man called Mohammed Khasib in an unspecified foreign territory. The problem is that Harris, for all his superior soldier's acumen, has decided he doesn't have the right stuff after all and has applied to Royce for an honorable discharge from his specialized duties. On a previous mission, he was unable to bring back the body of the colleague who'd accompanied him as a spotter and who had subsequently been blasted by a dozen AK-47 bullets during the pair's hasty evacuation and evade maneuver. Marines are under standing orders to retrieve all corpses, so Harris feels he is obligated to terminate his career.

In a series of scenes written in dialogue that is often fired as if from Vetere's own battery of AK-47s, the Major works on Harris to rethink his decision. During these intense encounters, Harris and Royce go from being a stereotypical, hard-bitten officer sounding out a stereotypical, at-attention enlisted man to two figures representative of universal human frailties and uncertainties. The two are part of a Marine Corps whose mandate Royce prompts Harris to reiterate: to "destroy and still feel empathy."

The wartime irony that the playwright considers is one of both empathy and unintended destruction. While literature is knee-deep in antiwar works, Vetere isn't adding another one to the pile, and that's why One Shot, One Kill seems very much of the moment. Right now, America is involved in a war that strikes much of the population as necessary, if not good. This is the reality that Vetere addresses. He uses Harris and Royce to illustrate the possibly soul-destroying, not to mention body-destroying, decisions that must be made if wars are to be waged and won; both men eventually reveal the ways in which they are vulnerable. At one point, Harris remembers his spotter's abandoned corpse and suddenly has to run to the head. Later, Royce is discovered listening to Yo Yo Ma's recording of Luigi Boccherini's Concerto in G; he's a man with taste and intelligence trying to catch his breath under stress. Throughout the course of this scene, Harris and Royce, who up until then have shared a standard officer-enlisted man give-and-take, finally set their military behavior at ease and talk like men embarking on a solid friendship.

Vetere's play follows Harris and Royce as the barriers between them fall, as Harris determines that he'll remain in the corps, as he leaves to complete his mission, and as the outcome of that assignment takes its toll on both men. The only exception to their one-on-one encounters is a scene in which Harris's wife, Nicole, the daughter of an officer killed in the 1983 Beirut bombing, visits Royce to find out why her husband has cut himself off from her. In doing so, she makes a point about the losses women suffer in a traditionally male arena. What eventually transpires won't be reported here, but it's not in the least cut-and-dried; the situation is beautifully depicted by Vetere in shades of gray.

The playwright's drama/melodrama is harsh, human, and seemingly inevitable. As Harris and Royce lock and unlock horns, there are moments when Vetere's writing does veer from those shades of gray to a few pulpy shades of purple. (This is especially so during an important flashback towards the end of the action.) Royce, given to broody moods and in thrall to classical music, may be a little more well-rounded than seems likely for someone who is initially presented as thick-skinned. Also, Vetere indulges in a lot of pro-Marine "semper-fi"-ing and in plugs are tantamount to product placement. "I just happened to take a glance at the Marine recruiting officer," Royce recalls of the day he signed up for the armed forces. "He walked the walk and he talked the talk."

Another Montano/Cullen confrontation
in One Shot, One Kill
(Photo: Marvin Einhorn)
Michael Cullen as Royce and Robert Montano as Harris, both with faces that could have been carved from mountain stone, also talk the talk and walk the walk. They are stern and defiant necessary but, when they have to thaw, they bring a manly grace to those moments. These marines emanate empathy and, because of that, that are characters with whom the audience can empathize. Andrea Maulella, making the most of her one scene, is a firm but worried Nicole; the way she opens and closes a purse says everything that needs to be said about her resolve. The production is directed by Joe Brancato with the crispness of a military drill.

Tony Straiges has designed a sparsely furnished marine office that lighting designer Jeff Nellis is able to turn, at least once, into a jungle under siege. Curtis Hay, the costume designer, has not only found the right uniforms but has also located some impressive civvies. Johnna Doty's original music and sound design are helpful.

One Shot, One Kill was first produced in 1998 by Brancato for his Penguin Repertory Company in Rockland County; this was, of course, before the September 2001 terrorist attacks. For Vetere to make his play resonate with today's headlines, he only had to change a line here and throw in a reference there. This is a testament to his prescience--much as Homebody/Kabul, written in 1997, is a testament to Tony Kushner's foresight. Along with Anne Nelson's The Guys, these plays represent the beginning of theater's attempt to deal cogently with the issues and emotions provoked by what we now call 9/11. Maybe plays can't solve international conflicts, but they certainly can throw needed light on the repercussions and ramifications.

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