Review: Robbins’ Play Strenuously Unfunny

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By: Michael Kuchwara, AP Drama Critic

(AP) “Embedded”? Embalmed is more like it. Tim Robbins’ heavy-handed harangue, on view at off-Broadway’s Public Theater, is satirical deadwood, a strenuously unfunny riff on the war in Iraq (here called Gommorah) that should send audiences of all political persuasions fleeing up the aisles.

Satire demands much more skill than Robbins has brought to this lame Actors’ Gang production, done earlier in the season in Los Angeles. Robbins, who wrote and directed “Embedded,” opts for the sledgehammer approach.

An Oscar winner last month for his performance in “Mystic River,” Robbins creates in bold if simple-minded strokes, draining his characters of any humor and subtlety.

The show, a mercifully brief 90 minutes, has three major components: the tales of those nefarious presidential advisers who create and orchestrate the war, the journalists who report on it, and the soldiers who fight in it.

The cabal around the Chief Executive includes folks with such names as Rum-Rum, Gondola, Woof and Pearly White. Sound familiar? During these sequences, the actors wear masks (created by Erhard Stiefel) with grotesque facial expressions. They are visually striking, much more theatrical than the laugh-free dialogue Robbins gives them.

The show is mock sentimental in its dealings with the soldiers, particularly as they say goodbye to their loved ones in the States. These scenes recall the schmaltz of those World War II screen epics that usually starred John Wayne.

There is one twist. One of those heading overseas is Jen-Jen Ryan (read Jessica Lynch), a young female soldier who gets captured by the enemy and whose ordeal is exploited by the government and the press for their own purposes. As played by Kaili Hollister, Jen-Jen is pretty much a cipher. That may be Robbins’ point, but it makes for bland viewing.

It’s the journalists — especially those embedded with various units — who come in for the roughest patch of criticism, often playing along with the military to put a positive spin on things.

The press is under the command of Col. Hardchannel, a rough, crewcut commander who happens to be a musical-theater buff. The man (a scrappy, memorable V.J. Foster) peppers his barks to reporters with a parade of show references.

“Don’t cry for me, Argentina,” he snarls at one point to his hapless charges. Then there’s the inevitable “Sing out, Louise” — Mama Rose’s memorable opening moment in “Gypsy” — during a tense training exercise for the recruits. These show-biz jokes are funny the first or second time you hear them, but Robbins doesn’t let go until their effectiveness is diluted.

The production does move swiftly on the bare stage of the Public’s Newman Theater, but your mind will wander through the constant whirl.

It’s difficult to imagine just who the audience is for this show. Neoconservatives, of course, will dislike Robbins’ creation for its mega-ton Bush-bashing. Ultraliberals will wonder why, if the president and his policies are the targets, the show isn’t sharper and funnier. But then, finding genuine wit in “Embedded” is as difficult as finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

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