Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Conscientious Objector

Waaay tooo loonggg! It was like sitting through a history lesson -- I learned some things, but the presentation was dry and completely lacking in theatricality. A man a couple rows behind me snored loudly during the first act.

I’m surprised the Keen Company put on such a lifeless show. Their productions are usually first rate, but not only did this play need work, the acting and directing did as well. It seemed more like an early read-through than a show in final previews, a press performance, no less. I actually wondered if the cast had received some really sad news just before the curtain. That’s how off the mark they were, even two-time Tony winner John Cullum, who plays President Lyndon B. Johnson, seemed distracted.

This was the world premiere of Michael Murphy’s play, directed by Carl Forsman. Certainly the basis of the play should have made it compelling. In early 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. informed his advisors that he intended to play a major role in the antiwar movement, advocating immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Vietnam. No major figure of Dr. King’s stature had yet been willing to take such a dramatic stand, even those thought to oppose the war, such as Senators Kennedy and McGovern. Dr. King, played by DB Woodside from the hit television drama “24” in his New York stage debut, knew he would be turning past allies like President Johnson into powerful enemies and reviving the animus of old enemies as well. Dr. King’s inner circle feared he would trigger a political backlash that could undo the progress made in civil rights. The play draws upon the historical record, including the FBI’s relentless surveillance, often illegal, and the White House’s infamous secret telephone recordings. It’s a troubling story of dissent in America during a time of war and one man’s struggle to do what he feels is right against much opposition.

All of this should have made for a dramatic presentation, but any tension that Dr. King’s soul searching and speaking out raised was lost in the wordiness of too much talk. The direction appeared nonexistent; the actors didn’t seem to know what to do as they spoke all that dialogue. They’d sit in a chair, get up from the chair and stand or walk across the minimalist set, then sit again. The whole production had the amateurish feel of a school play.

It’s a shame the production isn’t sharper because of the prophetic message that comes across most strongly at the end through Rachel Leslie’s effective presentation as Coretta King sharing “The 10 Commandments of Vietnam” that Dr. King had in his pocket when he was shot. These are especially important today because we have no leaders like Dr. King speaking out about our current misguided war:

“Thou shalt not believe the people we claim to be fighting for love us.
“Thou shalt not believe they are grateful for our support.
“Thou shalt not believe they consider the insurgents who kill our soldiers to be ‘terrorists.’
“Thou shalt not believe they support the government we have given them.
“Thou shalt not believe our goverment’s figures on casualties and deaths.
“Thou shalt not believe our generals know best.
“Thou shalt not believe even our most sympathetic allies think what we are doing is right.
“Thou shalt not believe that our enemy’s victory means our defeat.
“ Thou shalt not believe there are military solutions to social problems.
“Thou shalt not kill.”

Sadly, these could be read today. They are so powerful, it’s a shame it took an hour and 20 minutes to get to them.

  This is Murphy’s second collaboration with Forsman and Cullum. The first, “Sin (A Cardinal Deposed),” received an Obie Award and a Drama Desk nomination for Best Play. Now that was riveting theatre. It also was only 90 minutes with no intermission, thus avoiding the talkiness that plagues “The Conscientious Objector.”

Murphy has recently finished a second play set in the civil rights era, again collaborating with Forsman, entitled “The Asset.” He is currently writing a third play in what now appears to be shaping up into a trilogy.

The civil rights era is certainly a promising idea for dramatizing, but interestingly enough, present day history in the making last week was much more involving than this play. I saw the show Wednesday night after our governor, Eliot Spitzer, had just resigned following revelations that he spent many thousands of dollar for trysts with high-priced prostitutes. I could have stayed home and watched the news and seen a much more intriguing drama unfold.

“The Conscientious Objector” plays through Saturday, April 19 at Keen Company’s Off-Broadway home, The Clurman Theater @ Theatre Row (410 West 42nd St., between 9th and 10th Avenues). Tickets are $40 and are available by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visiting

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