Iraq War Veterans, in Their Own Words: ‘In Conflict’

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

As a source of firsthand information about American soldiers’ experiences in the Iraq war, “In Conflict,” a documentary theater project now at the Barrow Street Theatre, is irreproachable. Artistically, however, Douglas Wager’s adaptation of Yvonne Latty’s nonfiction book has some problems — primarily a tendency to add histrionic flourishes to material that needs no further amplification.

It’s a pity that Mr. Wager, who also directed, couldn’t resist the temptation to stage exaggerated marching sequences and dabble in flashy pantomime and piped-in sound effects. The truth is, these soldiers’ oral histories — painstakingly collected by Ms. Latty from veterans across the continent — more than hold their own. The more simply they are presented, the more the actors connect with the audience.

Much has been made in the press of audiences’ unreceptive attitude to films, plays, and television shows about a war they get their fill of from the nightly news. Yet “In Conflict” offers something not available on the nightly news — a chance to sit for five minutes and listen as a veteran tells his or her version of events. At its best, it’s the closest to hearing these stories firsthand — especially in the grasp of an actor such as Damon Williams, who is utterly persuasive here in two different roles.

Mr. Williams plays Herold Noel, a vet living in the Bronx who medicates his posttraumatic stress disorder with alcohol, and Jamel Daniels, a wounded Marine recovering at Walter Reed Hospital, with such raw feeling that you momentarily slip into his reverie, forgetting that he’s only a surrogate for the actual men who live these lives. More than any of the other actors, Mr. Williams taps into that mysterious power of documentary theater — that illusion of listening to a real person’s story.

There are other strong performances here — Suyeon Kim, who plays a disabled female veteran who longs to wear stilettos again, stands out, as does Ethan Haymes, whose upbeat attitude and clear-sighted analysis are contradicted by his jittery body and rat-a-tat speech patterns.

But there are also moments in “In Conflict” when the casting reminds you of how much distance separates the life experiences of the average actor and the average soldier. Watching some of the actors struggle to find these characters is in itself poignant. The contrast is striking: One group of young men and women serves in the military, while another goes on auditions.

This contrast is in many ways at the heart of the monologues — the terror over there, followed by domestic indifference. In the monologues, soldiers muse about surreal experiences — coming home on two-week leave and going to the mall to buy shoes, or trying to talk to an old friend who’s more interested in “American Idol” than Iraq.

Yet disclosing the monologues’ contents in piecemeal fashion doesn’t do them justice. Ms. Letty (who, via video monitors, introduces each monologue) knows that sound bites are not stories, and Mr. Wager’s adaptation tries to preserve that spirit. And to a large extent, he succeeds in keeping the focus on the soldiers’ words — despite the ill-chosen, flamboyant interstitial sequences and the inappropriately splashy production design. The war may be loud and chaotic, but in the end, the struggle of the veteran’s postwar life unfolds in quiet, overlooked places.

Until November 16 (Culture Project, 27 Barrow St. at Seventh Avenue, 212-352-3101).

The New York Sun

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