The Birthday Boys: ArtEffects Theatre Company – New York

Betsy Kim
Photo Credit:
Zach McCoy, featuring Lowell Byers.

“The Birthday Boys” openly asks the age-old question that somehow still rings with relevance: How do you define being a man?

The Birthday Boys

City: New York
Venue: Access Theater

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.

* * *

“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

Betsy Kim is a writer, living in New York City.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

In this exploration of the Hasidic Orthodox Jewish community in New York, it can be inferred that religion is likened to a spatial cave within a wider world of cultural beliefs, ideas and means of expression.

Menashe (2017) marks Alex Lipschultz's debut as a screenwriter. He shares co-writing credit with director Josh Z. Weinstein for whom the film marks his own narrative directorial feature debut. In as much as it is a film of firsts, Menashe is a reemergence of an historical Jewish language that has been absent from the modern cinematic art form for many decades. For Lipschultz it's certainly the continuation of his storytelling journey, building on his producing credits that include feature films Computer Chess (2013) and Lovesong (2016), as well as Richard Linklater's television series Up to Speed (2012).

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.