Who exactly are the savages in Anne Nelson’s new play, “Savages”? Nelson doesn’t answer this question in her somewhat fact-based account of the Philippines-American War (1899-1914) because she doesn’t know. Instead, she lets her lively text ramble, with the hope that intelligent discussion will stumble over subconscious truth. It doesn’t. It just rambles.
The non-fictional topic is Major Littleton Waller’s “butchering” of some Filipino prisoners. He’s on trial, however, not for breaking protocol, but for improperly following orders (to execute all Filipinos older than 10). The army’s policy is necessity—“us or them” mentality—and the vague Filipino view is innocence: the U.S. should leave, and they’ll kill them until they do. Instead of capturing this ugliness of war, “Savages” captures the prettiness of conversation.
This needs to be a courtroom drama; instead, Waller waits (guarded by the fictional Corporal John Hanley) for his verdict, which makes “Savages” the breather after the fight. We don’t transcend black and white, or the conviction from both sides of being right, because there are no emotional stakes, and hence no reason to “play.” Maridol (the Filipino nurse) and these harsh military figures may repress their emotions to survive their jobs, but I don’t want to justify an absence of intensity with an abundance of intent. Most people go to the theater to experience something, anything, and all I felt after “Savages” was the humiliation that America is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. It is a valuable lesson, but not a particularly theatrical one.
The central character, Hanley, is too simple-minded an everyman for his own good. With a tyro’s hyper-formality and narrow perspectives, Hanley is a blank slate meant to be talked at, not to. Brett Holland plays him as a well-meaning southerner who just wants some action (pronounced ayk-SHUN), but no matter how entertaining, he’s nothing more than a device for ignorance. “Savages” feels, even at its most intimate, like a classroom.
However, I’d pay for a teacher like Waller (James Matthew Ryan), a man both eloquent and passionate about the injustice of war. The metaphor he uses to explain his situation—a game of chess—has become a cliché in theater, but he barrels through it, as best a man with malaria can. However, Maridol (Julie Danao-Salkin) comes across more as a prop for Waller (“Exhibit A”) than as a complex or compelling character. You can make the point that her submissive front is just a cover for her rebellious nature—and the play’s poor, melodramatic climax supports this—but it’s boring to watch.
Waller puts it best: “A good idea that didn’t work . . . we call that a bad idea.” “Savages,” despite being a perfect, poetic parallel for Iraq, is a bad idea.
Lion Theater (410 West 42nd Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $19.25
Performances: Wednesday-Saturday @ 8:00
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.