Imagine this nightmare scenario: You’re abducted, blindfolded, tied up and left in a room to ponder your fate. Suppose you’re in there with two other abductees. At best, you may have 24 hours left to live.
What emotions do you go through? What conversations do you have? Do you march bravely towards death’s door or cower?
These are the kinds of existential quandaries that usually only serve to bog down a play, firmly qualifying as melodramatic navel-gazing.
In Texas native Aaron Kozak’s The Birthday Boys, the first live theater production at the recently reopened Texas Theatre since its heyday in the 1920s and '30s, three American soldiers serving in Iraq are faced with the aforementioned scenario and its existential implications.
What distinguishes Kozak’s piece from the usual existential drivel is its imaginatively creative approach to the subject. The play opens on a single set piece, two unconnected walls framing a storage room of some sort, as indicated by various stacked boxes. Projected on the theater’s movie screen is the back wall of the room.
Suddenly, two shrouded men enter the room dragging PFC Chester Gullette (James Ryen), a captured U.S. soldier. He is bound and blindfolded and after being left alone in the room sets about getting some sort of bearing on his situation.
Just then, the men re-enter carrying PFC Lance Tyler (Trevor David). The two men exchange stories of their capture, specifically how Lance’s best friend abandoned him when they were attacked, and make a desperately flawed attempt at escape before being caught. Finally, the masked men bring in a bound and blindfolded PFC Colin Carney (Nando Betancur), Lance’s abandoner.
The three are generally left to themselves in the beginning, which gives them ample opportunity to get to know each other better, fight (in Lance’s and Colin’s case), fill in their background information, crack jokes to break the tension and make a bet on who’ll pee their pants first.
This is where Kozak’s writing shines. He manages to fill in the biographical background of his characters without making it feel like forced exposition. Instead, the conversation flows naturally, the characters are well developed, and perhaps most importantly, he never loses sight of the healing effect of laughter.
Laughter and fear are closely connected, both psychologically and physiologically. Kozak understands this, and instead of some Jason Bourne intensity-fest of yelling and utter drama, the men often break the tension and fear of their fate with a joke, some witty banter, embarrassing stories and silly bets. It gave the characters their humanity and kept the play from being too daunting.
Eventually, though still blindfolded, the soldiers are introduced to the Leader (Ali Saam). Charismatic and ruthless all at once, Saam, through Kozak’s writing, paints a very different picture than the terrorists Americans are accustomed to seeing on TV and movies. The Leader is intelligent, evenly tempered, and truly a product of his situation, just as the soldiers are products of theirs.
The Leader calmly attempts to learn the contents of the building Lance and Colin had been guarding on the base where they were abducted, implying specifically that there was a weapons cache in the building.
Citing their low status as Private First Class, both claim to not know about any weapons. Unbelieving of the testimony, the Leader decides to give them a little more time to contemplate their fate before he will return to ask again.
He returns and the men are more defiant. This time, hostage videos are made, guns are pointed and torture takes place. Still, nothing.
And to go any further would compromise the plot as there’s a particularly twisty ending that’ll have you talking long after leaving the theater.
Suffice it to say, as exciting and impressive as the story is, this is really about the characters, human relationships, the value of life, love, conflict, struggle and joy. And that’s the genius in Kozak’s approach to the weighty waters of existentialism. By setting the characters up in an extreme location with their time measured in hours instead of years, he forces the humanity out of them. And under that pressure, these lumps of coal that are U.S. Marines turn into the stronger than rock and emotionally complex diamonds of the human condition.
Kozak’s script may be great, but his direction is equal to the writing. Ryen, David and Betancur are engrossing. Even amidst their dire situation, their anecdotes, jokes and observations craft distinct characters that easily win the audience’s affection.
Saam was gifted with a challenging part in this play and brilliantly sold it. Though at times the plot is slightly predictable, Saam’s commitment to his character held it all together.
The Birthday Boys is only getting a limited run so make sure to go over to the Texas Theatre this weekend and check it out. It’s a show that will prove lasting and will leave a strong impression.