Kelly Mares, Gibson Frazier and Bobby Moreno (on couch) in LUTHER. Photo by Heather Phelps-Lipton.
BOTTOM LINE: A social critique on the life of the veteran back home, as told through an odd and funny family drama.
A new take on a timeless issue, Luther explores what happens to veterans who return to life post-war. Told as a darkly comedic character study, the play offers insight into the plight of the veteran. And because it is so theatrical (for example, a few of the characters are portrayed as hand puppets) the subject matter's melodramatic trap is avoided. Luther is effective as a metaphor rather than an after-school special.
Luther (Bobby Moreno) is a twenty-something veteran who has been adopted by well-intentioned married couple Marjorie (Kelly Mares) and Walter (Gibson Frazier). Though they were offered a profile of Luther's past when they signed the adoption papers they refused to look at it, instead choosing to bring Luther into their lives, shower him with love and support, and grow their family. All is mostly well in Marjorie and Walter's home, save for some difficulty in socializing their new son.
As the play begins, Marjorie and Walter dress for a party and discuss what to do with Luther while they take their highly anticipated upcoming vacation. Despite Luther's clearly adult demeanor (and facial hair), he is talked about as a child who requires care. As often happens within families, what's best for the child can cause disagreement between caregivers, but it's not until the following scene that we understand just how fractured this play's perspective actually is. Luther accompanies Marjorie and Walter to the party, and he and Marjorie agree that both need to embrace opportunities for socialization, so they set out to talk to strangers and enjoy themselves. A misunderstanding occurs and Luther's inner demons are exposed. What was seemingly quirky behavior before is now much more serious: when someone is encouraged to do inhuman acts on the battlefield, he can no longer feel truly human back home. Luther and Marjorie have fun at the party before the incident, each getting to know a stranger and letting loose. Awkward social situations are difficult for everyone, we learn.
Ethan Lipton's very funny script enables a comical party scene of small-talk, cater-waiters, and party-pretense. A truly brilliant moment occurs when Marjorie and new friend Morris (John Ellison Conlee) dance -- Morris is unabashed and Marjorie is initially reserved and then rocks out. Social mores are examined and we can all relate to the weirdness that occurs at work events with free booze.
Lipton's play lets us see the toll that war takes on a soldier from his personal perspective, as well as from the viewpoint of those who love him. To adopt an adult seems like a preposterous notion, until we experience Luther's acclimation back into society -- he is treated as a kid, or worse, as a dog. After Luther causes a scene at the party, his parents say things like "he normally loves people" and "he has a past." This unintentionally condescending response illuminates Lipton's social examination of the post-war veteran. Through Luther's own eyes the struggle is clear.
Ken Rus Schmoll's direction is tight and smart. Though we get the big picture party scene and later the cold sterility of the jail, we are always aware of Marjorie, Walter and Luther as caring individuals trying to do right. Schmoll keeps the focus on the humanity, which is the point, after all. Through sincere performances from the entire cast, we never doubt the absurd details of adult adoption. Everyone, particularly nerdy Morris (who describes himself as a perpetual victim) experiences difficulty relating to one another. In this, we see that Luther is not necessarily as alone as he thinks he is, though his circumstances (and those of his fellow soldiers) are unavoidably fatalistic.
(Luther plays as part of Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks 2012 at HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue, through June 17, 2012. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays at 8:30PM. Tickets are $18. To purchase tickets visit here.org or call 212.352.3101. For more information visit clubbedthumb.org.)