By Joseph Hurley
CONTACT WITH THE ENEMY, by Frank D. Gilroy. Directed by Chris Smith. Featuring Christopher Murney and Nesbitt Blaisdell. At Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd St., NYC. Through Dec. 4.
If reading and seeing his plays is a way of interpreting and understanding his life, the central event of the invaluable Frank D. Gilroy’s existence would appear to be World War II and his own experiences in the conflict.
In the 1964-65 theatrical season, the Bronx-born Irish-American playwright won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award and the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for "The Subject Was Roses," in which a young soldier, Timmy Cleary, an obvious authorial surrogate, made an uneasy return to the family and the apartment in which he’d been raised.
A few seasons ago, in a short-lived but admirable play, "Any Given Day," Gilroy dealt with his mother’s complicated family and a series of events that culminated in the young Cleary’s departure for the Army.
In 1962, "Who’ll Save the Ploughboy," a dark play whose subject was the post-war workings out of obligations incurred on the battlefield, won off-Broadway’s Obie Award as Best American Play of the Year.
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Now, with a gripping, unforgettable work only about an hour in length, "Contact with the Enemy," running at the justifiably celebrated Ensemble Studio Theatre through Dec. 4, the playwright is examining the harrowing 50-year-old memories churned up when two veterans of the war’s European Theater happen to visit the Washington’s Holocaust Museum in the same day in 1993.
Sensitively and economically staged by Chris Smith on EST’s Main Stage, and imaginatively designed by Kert Lundell, the production’s five-actor cast, fine in all respects, possesses, in its central roles, two of the most unpretentiously wondrous performances to be found on any New York stage this season.
Bill Duffy, a writer and a presumably successful one, and Hank Naylor, a businessman from the Dakotas, don’t immediately recognize each other when they first observe each other, standing in the entrance area of the installation, with a long sign reading "United States Holocaust Memorial Museum" hanging over their heads.
The play’s title refers to the stated goal of World War II reconnaissance units, specifically to "maintain contact with the enemy," which, as one of the men states early in the play, "can be extremely difficult when the enemy is in full retreat," which was the situation which was the case when the tale’s four-decade-old incident took place.
Duffy, who may probably be read as an older version of Timmy Cleary, played here with great subtlety and keen intelligence by Christopher Murney, and Naylor, an overtly affable but secretly complicated Westerner, embodied richly and inventively by Nesbitt Blaisdell, soon realize that they had served together and known each other well when both had been part of General George S. Patton’s Third Army in Germany, as Gilroy himself had been.
Gilroy, always a skillful and adroit writer, works amazing variations in "Contact with the Enemy," playing with the memories of his aging protagonists, revealing and withholding fragments of information from his audience, much as Duffy and Naylor do with each other, and, indeed, as each man does with himself, summoning up certain graphic details and suppressing others in an ultimately vain effort at self-justification and self-forgiveness.
As a result of Gilroy’s great skill, "Contact with the Enemy" plays as compellingly and as breathlessly as the mystery thriller it, in many respects, comes to resemble.
When a sweet-faced tour guide, played convincingly by Kathryn Gayner, discovers that the men had been participants in the event being memorialized by the exhibits and photographs before which they are standing, and which they have obviously journeyed to Washington to find, she convinces them to submit to first-person interviews conducted by her superior, Mrs. Grayson.
The interviewer, a crisp, impersonal "by-the-book" inquisitor done with a daunting degree of iciness by Cynthia Hayden, manages to inflame and, to an extent, alienate the men, acting as an unintentional catalyst, motivating something approaching full disclosure when the self-protective Duffy and the seemingly more outgoing, recovering alcoholic Naylor adjourn to a nearby bar.
The interview scenes bring into question the single dubious aspect of Smith’s otherwise flawless handling of the material. Mrs. Grayson doesn’t appear to know about tape recorders, which such a functionary would almost certainly have been familiar with, and used, in 1993. Nor does she seem to be familiar with shorthand, settling instead for jotting only a very few notes on a yellow pad, using what appears to be a decidedly upscale pen, suitable to the character’s social status, upon which one of the men makes comment, using as evidence her expensive-looking pearls and the impressive ring she wears.
Gilroy’s brief play, a wholly admirable addition to the vast body of work he has created over the last four decades or so, is made up of a mass of remembered and reconstructed details, some of them at least momentarily contradictory, but all of them entirely credible within the context the playwright has constructed.
The play’s fifth and final character, the nearly wordless role of the bartender who provides the fuel for the self-revelatory ride being undertaken by the old comrades, is handled here, gracefully and efficiently, by Paul Bartholomew.
The astoundingly detailed, completely believable performances being turned in by actors Blaisdell and Murney, who, years ago gave an absolutely unforgettable performance as a dog at the Public Theatre, should surely be remembered when the time for giving out the season’s acting prizes rolls around.
Not to omit Frank D. Gilroy, who, quietly and unpretentiously, has, with this play, once again proven what a singularly significant asset he is in the play-writing world.
The problem with the searing and powerful "Contact with the Enemy" may prove to be its length. At 60 minutes or so, it isn’t really a full evening, satisfying as it is by itself. Yet, it would be difficult to imagine a suitable companion piece, something that might help Gilroy’s admirable new work achieve the visibility it so richly deserves.