Forty years ago, Edwin Starr’s “War” was a Billboard Top 100 hit, an explicit denunciation of armed conflict. “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing,” he trilled. Karen Malpede’s Prophecy takes this sentiment as her starting point. Her latest play, an ambitious, layered look at the damage wrought by centuries of strife on the battlefield—and in the personal relationships that ensue once military action is over—is bold and dramatic. It’s also shrill.
Numerous stories unfold simultaneously. Jeremy Thrasher (Brendan Donaldson), recently back from fighting in Iraq, is studying acting at a well-respected New York conservatory. His teacher is former Broadway actor Sarah Golden (Kathleen Chalfant). A monologue Golden instructs Thrasher to deliver—the Tiresias speech from Sophocles’ Antigone unwittingly sends him into a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-induced rage. Golden is shocked by the violence of his in-class outburst, and in short order not only has to help him deal with the trauma he has experienced, but also has to re-examine her own past, including a volatile relationship with Lucas Brightman, a former student who fought in Vietnam and later died. Golden and Brightman had been lovers and Thrasher’s struggles bring Golden face-to-face with a host of complicated recollections and emotions from the early 1970s.
At the same time, Golden and her husband of many decades, Alan (George Bartenieff), are having difficulties. As the director of a refugee aid organization, Alan is often busy “saving the world,” making Sarah feel as if her work as a teacher is frivolous. Also distressing, many years back Alan had an affair with his assistant, Hala (Najla Said). But it was not just lust that propelled Alan into bed with Hala. A Jew whose father saved hundreds from Hitler’s ovens, Alan felt a tremendous need to propagate, to do his bit to replace those lost to the Fuhrer’s genocide. Sadly, Alan and Sarah cannot reproduce; Sarah became infertile following an illegal abortion performed years before, prior to Roe v. Wade. After taking up with Hala, Alan’s dream was realized—after one miscarriage, Hala carried to term and delivered a daughter, Mariam, who she reared in Lebanon.
Out of sight is apparently out of mind and Sarah and Alan rarely talk about either Hala or the child anymore. In fact, Alan doesn’t meet Mariam (Najla Said) until years later when, as an adult, she lands on his doorstep and threatens to blow him to smithereens with a bomb she says is hidden in her purse.
And that’s not all: Turns out Sarah’s boss, Dean Charles Muffler, [Peter Francis James] was Lucas Brightman’s commanding officer in Vietnam and his possible role in Brightman’s death lurks over the two-act production. What’s more, Thrasher’s PTSD triggers long-buried feelings in Muffler and he is once again tormented by memories of serving in the country.
These themes give Prophecy incredible, palpable intensity. Despite this, Prophecy weaves a cloth of far too many threads. The similarities between U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Iraq are noteworthy, but on top of themes including marital fidelity, the desire to reproduce, the meaning of friendship, the Holocaust, successful mentoring, how best to assist refugees, the threat of terrorism, and the lasting impact of war on both those who fight and those who are fought against, it’s too much.
Still, Prophecy delivers an urgent message. Like Edwin Starr’s “War,” it reminds us that nothing good comes from military combat. “They say we must fight to keep our freedom,” Starr sang. “But Lord knows there’s got to be a better way.”