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Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait

Soldiers and sand dominate Daniel Talbott's dystopian drama.

Brian Miskell and Seth Numrich star in Daniel Talbott's Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait, directed by Talbott, at The Gym at Judson.
(© Joan Marcus)

Don't expect to learn anything about the countries mentioned in the title of Daniel Talbott's painfully repetitive Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait, now making its world premiere at the Gym at Judson in a coproduction by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and piece by piece productions. Talbott (whose plays Slipping and Yosemite have been produced by Rattlestick and who also serves as that company's literary manager) seems far less interested in the specific geopolitics of the countries he invokes as he is in depicting the horrors to which they might lead. While certainly well-intentioned, it results in a theatrical experience that is both dismal and unenlightening.

The story takes place in a desert outpost in the not so distant future as a series of global conflicts rage on. Smith (Seth Numrich) and Leadem (Brian Miskell) are two young soldiers charged with guarding this Tatooine-like place (although Leadem suspects that they've really been left there to die). When an American soldier who survived an ambush (the hoarse Chris Stack playing an aging surfer dude) arrives at the post half-dead, Smith and Leadem must decide if they will welcome their brother in arms or turn him away. After all, food and water are running out and they certainly don't have enough for three.

There's something fetishistic (almost sadistic) about watching this avalanche of misery fall upon the taut and glistening muscles of the cast. Sand mixes with sweat in Tristan Raines' militaristic costume design, which would look perfect in a glossy Hollywood war film like Jarhead. Instead, we get a Samuel Beckett knockoff minus the humor.

Like Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot, Smith and Leadem wait for a similarly elusive supply convoy. But unlike the aforementioned Beckettian hobos, there is nothing funny or insightful about the soldiers' stage business. Numrich is channeling Matthew McConaughey in his Southern-fried portrayal of Smith, babbling obscenities and miming sexual intercourse. Miskell's Leadem is a silent wallflower. He's too preoccupied with visions of a Serbian woman he raped (Jelena Stupljanin in an unsettlingly realistic performance) and a younger brother (Jimi Stanton) he left in California. The arch-seriousness of these imaginary confrontations is regularly undercut by moments of astounding bathos, like when the little brother graphically describes a group of whalers in the South Pacific raping a dolphin as a way to make Leadem feel better about his misbehavior in the Balkans.

Talbott has also opted to direct his own play, which doesn't offer him enough distance to see the awkward tonal shifts in the script. Scenes go on far too long and the profanity-laced dialogue becomes as indistinguishable as long expanses of sand in the desert.

Scenic designer Raul Abrego has thrillingly created that desert within the Gym at Judson, blanketing the stage with coarse beige sand. As the actors kick it up with their strenuous blocking, the crystalline shards invade your lungs. In terms of giving the audience a tactile sense of the play's environment, it is a complete success, although I can't imagine many people will be pleased to be coughing up sand for the rest of the evening. While only 90 minutes long, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait feels as tedious as a forced march through the Sahara.

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