The Birthday Boys openly asks the age-old question that somehow still rings with relevance: How do you define being a man?
It’s a play about the military, where what’s black and white readily transforms into what’s red, white and blue. At a surface level, the play is a “guy story”, the way dramas and comedies can fall into categories of “chick flicks” or “bromances”. However, although the play is about men, you don’t have to be a guy to enjoy it. The characters are ultimately tested with the ideals of being a man—meaning a soldier—meaning more universally, a person of courage and honor.
In the first scene, three private, first class soldiers, are dragged on stage, bound and blindfolded, in t-shirts and camouflage fatigues. The entire play takes place in an enclosed, barren warehouse room, during one day in Iraq in 2006. Under Montserrat Mendez’s well paced direction, time flies in this 90-minute production, with no intermission. It’s a war story, where the actors convey virtually all of the action using conversation, resulting in a skillful unveiling of human psychology.
Through both tense and humorous dialogue, the audience learns the past, present and futures of Lance Tyler (Walker Hare), Chester Gullette (Lowell Byers), and Colin Carney (Zach McCoy), three U.S. Marines, held in captivity by Iraqi insurgents played by (Jevon McFerrin, Roland Lane, Patrick Cann) and their leader (Abraham Makany). Using realistic and, at times, coarse and sexual, locker room language, three distinctly different men emerge. Captors interrogate the soldiers, who must make videos, under threats of execution and demands for U.S. withdrawal of all troops from Iraq within 24 hours.
The play is neither pro-war, nor anti-war, but it is written with respect for the U.S. military. In the playwright’s notes, Aaron Kozak, wondered how he would respond to war-like situations and whether he had the character to make the right decisions under the unimaginable pressures of battle. His grandfather was shot during the Battle of Peleliu during World War II and received the Purple Heart. Kozak wrote, “I can only hope to become a man of his caliber someday, and I dedicate this play to him.”
Two soldiers stationed at the Al Asad Airbase, Carney and Tyler, were planning to celebrate their 22nd and 23rd birthdays, when their captors ambushed and abducted them. (In an ironic twist, why Gullette ended up with the shared plight of “The Birthday Boys” is later revealed.) During their initial hours together, Tyler’s rage toward Carney repeatedly and convincingly boils to the surface:
“You f-cking left me! You f-cking coward! You left me to die! I would never do that to you!”
While the three men remain blindfolded, with tied arms and legs, Tyler furiously thrashes, kicking Carney, until Gullette intervenes, “Tyler! Back off! Seriously! Tyler, you’re kicking me now, guy! Back the f-ck off!” Carney apologizes, “I just f-cked up, man. I did. I don’t know what to say. I’m not making excuses. I just got scared and I f-cked up.”
When Tyler remains locked up with the friend who betrayed him, he bitterly blurts out, “You ran. You left me. Justice is that you’re here, too, and I hope this is where you die.” He then quips, “Happy Birthday, you piece of shit. I bought you a f-cking iPod.”
The production uniquely weaves the tension of building danger with the release of humor. The men sleep, wake, and fight fear and boredom by arguing and making small talk on everyday subjects, including their friend with “a horrible mustache” (“Yeah, he thinks it’s awesome”) and women. Carney notes his grandmother sent him a sweater and Gullette laughs, observing, “It’s 130 degrees outside.”
They discuss their pasts and how they ended up in the military. Through a subtle exchange, the soldiers come to forgive each other and themselves, for past mistakes.
One of Kozak’s challenges is writing about people who do not share similar advantages with the artist. This can pose questions of writing with compassion, but without condescension. (For example, Barbara Ehrenreich’s The New York Times Bestseller, “Nickel and Dimed,” has sympathetic intentions of revealing the exploitation of blue collar workers. However, when Ehrenreich reveals to other maids that she is not a maid but actually a writer, working on a book, a notion the cleaning staff has difficulty grasping, readers arguably experience piercing discomfort with Ehrenreich’s unwitting cruelty of condescension.)
Kozak wrote the play is for “the guys who skipped college” and joined the military to serve their country. He wrote, “It’s most important to me that these guys love this play” and with all productions, Kozak requires a military discount.
Before joining the marines, Gullette worked in security at Walmart, Tyler flunked out of Wake Forest College, then became a cashier at Target. A viewer may wonder whether this presents realistic backgrounds of fully developed characters or some unnecessary stereotypes. According to the U.S. Marine Corps demographics as of June 2011, 95% of Marines have high school diplomas or the equivalent and 87% of officers have a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degrees. For the enlisted Marines, 1% have bachelor’s degrees, 2% have some college, 90% have high school diplomas or the equivalent, and 6% have not even obtained a high school diploma.
Kozak effectively rises above harsh socio-economic lines by effectively depicting American heroes. In many ways, the play contrasts with today’s environment, saturated with scandals of Wall Street, perpetrated by people of astronomical advantages and little or no honor. The soldiers’ basic values, prop up albeit old-fashioned ideals of decency, which still appeal to generations beyond Kozak’s grandfather.
The Birthday Boys revives the notion that men don’t cry. Men don’t squeal. Men don’t betray people they’ve sworn to protect. Men grasp that there is something larger and more meaningful in life than themselves. And men will never cease to surprise you.
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“The Birthday Boys” by Aaron Kozak, presented by ArtEffects Theatre Company at the Access Theatre (380 Broadway at White St.), Sept. 15-25, tickets $18 at www.brownpapertickets.com.
Betsy Kim is a writer, living in New York City.