Imagine yourself far away from home, stripped of your identity, doing the exact same thing as the interchangeable cog in the wheel beside you. Imagine that you are so scared by the fact that you have no idea what’s happening to you tomorrow that you coat yourself with a thick layer of false bravado just to get through another day . . .and another . . . and another. You’re so panic-stricken that someone will know you for what you really are that you’ll tell whatever story fits best – even stereotype yourself if you have to – just so you can be the perfect image of what you’re supposed to be. Now tell me: are you a soldier in the middle of a war? Or are you the whore that services the soldiers? In Stephen Gracia’s WWII play, Next, the answer is – both.
Next begins in a place that’s as unrefined and base as can be imagined – outside a mobile whorehouse that’s been brought to an American army encampment in Europe during WWII. When we first meet these soldiers they’re mentally (if not physically) psyching themselves up to have sex with the nameless gal waiting inside who, to them, amounts to little more than a body part. The soldiers discuss how they’ll treat her, what they’ll do to her, and how they’ll feel after they’re done. Frankly, the fact that she’s a person at all is almost inconsequential. As the Lieutenant says to his men “Don’t you boys feel…right… up to your necks in gunpowder, blood and…pussy?” The truth is, for all the posturing, crowing and strutting these young soldiers do, it all rings a little hollow. As much as they’d like to pretend otherwise, they’re looking for a way to connect, not merely bodily but emotionally and – yes – even spiritually with the woman waiting inside the trailer.
More of the soldiers’ sensitivity seeps out inadvertently as the play moves forward, despite their every efforts to camouflage that part of themselves. It seems that when one particular gal – a Japanese whore (set aside particularly for the black soldiers who aren’t permitted to mingle with the white women) – seemed to have gotten knocked about pretty badly by the Officers before even being put to work, the soldiers’ protective sides come out. (You don’t do it to a woman. Ever. If I had a Jap soldier here, right now, I’d do things to him that would make you sick to be a man . . . but not to a woman.) Suddenly, the women inside these trailers are moved up an imaginary line themselves and are promoted from mere body part to something with at least a little human dignity.
By the time we’re actually introduced to one of these women – “Madeline” (Kendra Leigh Landon) as she’s referred to . . . for one name’s as good as any other – the talk that’s swirled around has made her into something of a mythological creature, both for the audience as well as for young Danny, (John Weisenburger) a virgin with a desire to romance this woman, woo her, and make this moment count for him as well as for her. The gesture is almost too naive to be real, and yet this character of Danny represents so many young boys who have always gone off to war with their small town morals which often serve as the only reminder of home in the foreign land in which they’ve been asked to gamble away their life.
Slowly, this arm’s length dance between nameless whore and guileless soldier is brought in closer, and the heartbreak of so many of those who lost their innocence in ways too personal to simply toss off as a footnote becomes the story of Madeline and Danny – she, every girl . . . he, every guy and they – every hopeless pair who were ever brought together under horrifying circumstances in desperate need of a little tenderness only to find so much more. But ultimately – while they’re able to cling to each other for a moment, they’re both keenly aware that what they’ve caught will only last until they hear the familiar cry of “NEXT!”.
Based on Jacques Brel’s haunting “Au Suivant”, Gracia’s touching script is filled with moments of raw truth, not just between Danny and Madeline but between the enlisted men as well; when a Jewish soldier talks of destroying all the Japanese because they’re ruining the world it opens up an avenue of accusations and insults that perfectly sum up the horror that was World War II. Under Michael LoPorto’s direction the harsh realities of this world are exposed, yet he allows the tenderness to bubble up in the most unexpected of places.
Highly recommended – this play will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.
~~~NEXT Written by Stephen Gracia Directed by Michael LoPorto . runs through February 19, 2011 Wednesday – Saturday at 7pm with additional shows Saturdays Feb. 9 & 15 at 2pm Sunday, Feb 13 at 7pm . HERE Arts Center 145 Avenue of Americas (at Dominick Street) Tickets are $18 at 212-352-3101 or www.here.org