The premise of ratings-driven “newness” is what underlies Gip Hoppe’s brilliant “A New War.” Set in a TV news station, the play chronicles the coverage of America’s fictional “new war” against an “undisclosed enemy who dresses differently than us and eats strange food.” No aspect of modern wartime America is left untouched by Hoppe’s mercilessly satirical pen. The war is hyped up as a giddy, carnivalesque event, complete with a dramatic, “sellable” name: “Operation Bend Over and Take Your Eagle the Hard Way.” In the play, News Woman and News Man take turns interviewing various guests — from retired Army General Buck Hesston (Guy Boyd) to a housewife in Midwest America (Andrew Polk) — on their Cable News Channel (CNC) show. Both Boyd and Polk appear and reappear on the news show in a series of rapid-fire character and costume changes so fast and funny that I barely had time to catch my breath between laughs.
The star of the show is clearly Hoppe’s piercingly witty script — with layer upon layer of satire and social commentary. One does not need to be an Iraqi war expert to understand the jokes: I for one consider myself woefully (and shamefully) uninformed, but even I had a good laugh at the Secretary of Defense raising the nation’s terror alert from “Desert Ochre” to “Sea Foam Green” while waving a fistful of paint samples at the audience.
The effervescent News Woman is played by Janet Zarish, who beams winningly at the camera as she trills on about the “lustrous fresh-smelling new war — with the cellophane wrapping still intact.” Her line simultaneously emphasizes the twisted (and yet humorous) current “marketability” of war news coverage and plays upon the President’s dictum to America to “shop.” Polk portrays the President deliciously, staring off into space for a few moments in woebegone befuddlement after uttering the word “stradgetic” on national news. Other guests on the show include a country music star billing a war-theme single he penned just minutes after the “new war” was announced and a Martha Stewart-esque housewife recommending war news-watching party treats. These guests further underline the commercialistic ties to war coverage.
When the News Woman dares to gently question the Secretary of Defense (Polk) about “post-war building plans,” she is immediately snapped at, and the News Man distances himself as far away as possible from her. As the nation continues to engage in the “new war,” constitutional freedoms are slowly stripped away (in levels of increasing hilarity) with little or no concern at all from the public. The war, in fact, is reported to have “100 percent support.” The lone voice of opposition to the war effort is a stereotypical long-haired hippie marginalized in the biased air coverage given to him. If the News Woman garners laughs with her over-the-top bubbly enthusiasm for the war, Guy Boyd’s News Man creates equal (but slightly disturbing) humor in his wide-eyed, utterly serious belief in the war effort.
The audience gets to see glimpses of the “off-camera” CNC set, including the typical table of Dunkin’ Doughnuts and the hanging sound equipment. It’s a great but subtle commentary on reality and illusion — the news, which is supposed to represent reality, is completely a hyperbolized, fictionalized account of the truth, and we see the cracks in the pretty package of the set. The set plays well with varying levels of height (in terms of chairs, tables, desks, etc.) but completely lacks depth — yet another symbolic echo of the facade-like nature of news reporting.
What makes “A New War” so scary is that while the events are absurd, they are also imminently real. The audience members laugh at the utter constructed fakeness of the “veritable” news broadcast, but then go home, turn on the television, and watch an equally constructed version of the “real” world before their eyes once again.
If you haven’t ever made the trek out to the Long Wharf Theatre, I can tell you wholeheartedly that this play is worth every penny of cab fare.