How's this for marketing genius? A week before the production of Joseph Heller's We Bombed in New Haven opens at Stages, a bomb really does go off in New Haven—or whatever it was that exploded at Yale.
This life-imitating-art coincidence is ultimately the one thing we'll take from this play. A lot of people apparently don't know that literary one-hit-wonder Heller also penned this stage piece, and there's a good reason it's not nearly as famous as Catch-22: it just isn't very good. A play-within-a-play, Bombed tries to make points about theater, war and "the theater of war"—of war depicted as a power and ego game waged by adults who act like children, with the soldiers who do combat serving as little more than brainless plastic toys.
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This may have been revolutionary in 1968, when Heller wrote Bombed, but it's obvious—and dated—to anyone who raised a voice against George W's empire-building venture into Iraq. To illustrate his point, Heller has his soldier characters playing with building blocks, sucking on pacifiers, blowing soap bubbles and engrossed in games of hot potato with live munitions. When they're ordered to perform absurd tasks like bomb Minnesota—so "the enemy," whomever they may be, doesn't get to bomb it first—they get all hepped-up for the mission without even asking why it's necessary.
Save for Sergeant Henderson (Steve Lamprinos). He's seen the bloody truth of war, having just returned from an equally insipid bombing run over Turkey. Changed, he eventually goes AWOL, gets caught, and is dealt with in ways martyrs always are. The other plot line centers on Captain Starkey (Nick Boicourt), caught between the rebelliousness of the men he's supposed to be leading and his superior, the Major (Matt Freeman). Like Nazis at Nuremburg who claimed they were "just following orders," Starkey realizes there's no middle ground in wartime only when his son becomes a soldier and Starkey is forced to send him off to certain death.
Fleshed out a bit, each of these stories would've made a better play. But this Stages cast has taken Heller's already not-so-great script and improvised on it, so, amid the mediocre moments of drama and satire, we get actors drifting in and out of their roles, popping off about other local plays they've been in, various members of the Stages crew and assorted in-jokes that are vastly more entertaining for them than they are for us. But like soldiers in a war, they're just actors playing the parts they've been given, which may be the whole point of the production. But that doesn't mean we have to enjoy it.
We bombed in New Haven at Stages Theatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. $12-$15. Through June 14.