Held Together by Skin: A response to The War Boys

L to R: Sea McHale, Wyatt Joseph Fenner, Gabriel Sloyer. Photo by Chris Carroll.

Not more than 10 minutes into Naomi Wallace’s War Boys we see a frustrated young man jerking off to the Pledge of Allegiance. He’s part of a three-man brigade that hangs out for kicks every night on the US/Mexico border, passing the time cracking beers, showing off and turning in “beaners” attempting to cross over to the Feds for $10 a head. (It dawns on me that the whole jerking-off-to-the-Pledge-of-Allegiance thing is a pretty apt metaphor for what this trio is up to).

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that The Artists Crossing is mounting the NY premiere of this play, written way back in 1993, right now, in the thick of the hellfire that is Trump’s presidency.  James Will McBride’s director’s note submits that “the striking relevance of this play is proof that Naomi felt the tremors of phobia long before they jolted the bedrock of mainstream America.” I would disagree to the extent that xenophobia, that ever-indelible stain on American culture, has been giving us the jolts for hundreds of years. I wouldn’t be the first to observe that the Muslim ban and border wall nonsense are only the latest vicious permutations of a long-held tradition (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 being one place to start tracing our racist immigration lineage).

It takes a little time to settle into the world of this play. It kicks off with some rapid-fire, tit-for-tat locker room talk, and at first the pacing feels abrupt and a little jarring. It took me a good 15 minutes (indeed, past the patriotic self-gratification bit) to calibrate to its rhythm and actually believe I might be anywhere other than a small, downtown black box theater. The War Boys did eventually swallow me, however, into its tense, shape-shifting psychological quicksand. The play’s success, its magnetism, is in no small part due to the nuanced charisma of its three actors, Wyatt Joseph Fenner, Sea McHale and Gabriel Sloyer. Magnetism is an operative word here: the play toys constantly with repulsion and attraction, and the pain of enduring diametric pulls simultaneously. These three young men absorb us, they earn our sympathy, and they disgust us—it’s heart wrenching.

If The War Boys feels dated at times, it’s only in how casually the young men toss out vile racist language: the script is a minefield. These days we’re more accustomed to dog-whistle hate speech, more delicately crafted and encoded, but hate speech all the same. And yet, the play is far from ignorant of this technique. At one point, David (played by Wyatt Joseph Fenner), the most privileged and apparent leader of the pack, chides his working-class buddies and lays plain how easily language can be manipulated:

“You see, people like me, we don’t call them beaners, wetbacks, or greasers. We who aren’t of your, shall we say ‘constipated class’, we call them illegal aliens, immigration offenders, or, for those of us, like myself, still religiously inclined, ‘poor souls’. Try and show a little understanding.”

The mood is dangerously fragile, flipping on an instant from adolescent horseplay to murderous breaking point and back again. Part of the “game” these boys are playing on the border is performative. They each take turns rehearsing monologues that reveal their inner demons: Greg (Gabriel Sloyer) is the son of a violent WASP father and a Mexican mother, wrestling with how to live as “two separate pieces, just below the surface, held together by skin.” David has masculinity issues and hasn’t come to terms with having violated his now-deceased little sister as a child. George (Sea McHale) is a little bit delusional, possibly infected by the poison of American commercial advertising. He thinks he’s Joe Camel.

As the boys perform their one-man-shows-within-the-show, they edit, they revise, they give each other feedback (as David says to Greg, “One minor criticism: your prose is a tad flat, somewhat backwards, too… working class. You’ve got to flex it up a bit.”). The performances are multi-layered—they give us, the audience, back-story that helps us make sense of who these men are and what’s driven them to this point. And we sense that as they’re performing, re-performing, re-arranging their stories, they’re making sense of themselves. They’re choosing sides, feeling out different versions of the truth and testing how they land. It’s a frightening, explosive game with a hard stop: at a certain point the line between role-playing and reality dissolves and there’s no going back. The War Boys is, if nothing else, a shake-up, cracking open the darkest parts of the American psyche and testing the limits of what holds it together.

The War Boys is playing at The Access Theater through April 16. Tickets and more info available here.

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