In the play which is billed as “a dramatic verse tapestry,” playwright Joseph Pearce ably weaves together poems and diary entries by Sassoon and Owen with extracts of other writers of the era. Though Mr. Pearce identifies the characters as the English Sassoon and Owen, he provides scant biographical details about them. From this treatment, they could be any British young men of that time.
Born in 1886 to a wealthy family, the bisexual Sassoon enlisted when war was declared and bravely served on The Western Front. He later became an outspoken critic of British war leadership. In the literary world, he was a noted editor, poet and memoirist.
The son of a railway employee, Owen was born in 1893 and was a religious Anglican. He enlisted in 1915, and after serving in the war in 1916, he suffered from shell shock and was sent to a hospital. There he met Sassoon and an intense friendship began. Owen was killed in action one week before the war ended in 1918. His poetry was acclaimed during his lifetime and his reputation soared after his death. From the opinions of those who knew him, it is presumed that he was gay.
Pearce also relies heavily on the device of including a third character, “Death,” represented by an alluring young woman. She sings “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag (And Smile, Smile, Smile)” and dances throughout. This is not really successfully integrated into the presentation and becomes extraneous. That the actress starts out wearing a long black cape and then changes costumes four more times is needlessly distracting.
W.W. I is followed by superficial intimations of the Jazz Age of the 1920’s, then W.W.II in the 1940’s and then presumably onto the 1960’s, as Sassoon died in 1967. There are some very effective sequences relating to The Great War particularly life in the trenches, but these are sidetracked by cluttered and unrealized ambition.
Director Peter Dobbins’ vigorous staging has a brisk pace and visual accomplishment This takes place on Connor Munion’s compelling scenic design of a raised wooden platform configured as a runway stage with the audience on both sides. Surrounding the playing area are representations of old brick walls and a cross. It’s all quite atmospheric and brings the audience close to the action.
One of these sidewalls displays Joey Moro’s excellent projection design. Numerous vintage images of recruitment posters, battle scenes and appropriate film clips are shown. It gives the production scope, vivid clarity and is a powerful accompaniment to the other elements.
Gunfire, explosions and music are boldly rendered by Kenneth Goodwin’s sound design. The moody and temporal dimensions are enhanced by Michael Abrams’ lighting.
Military uniforms and casual wear of that era are finely styled by costume designer Jeannipher Pacheco. Though well done, Ms. Pacheco’s variations on black dresses and then white for Death are arguably too much.
Jennifer Delac’s choreography is basic and borders on clunky. This is most evident in a sequence set to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Those harsh, familiar melodies are matched with jerky movements by Death that are underwhelming.
The appealing and talented Sarah Naughton gamely appears as the problematic role of Death. Ms. Naughton fiercely puts herself out there, but comes across as having wandered in as Lola from a community theater production of Damn Yankees.
Michael Raver gives a rich and detailed performance as Owen. Stuttering and gesturing with force, Mr. Raver makes a great impact during his turn that is truncated by his early war death.
Having to essentially carry the show as Sassoon is the admirable Nicholas Carriere. Vocally and physically, Mr. Carriere wonderfully conveys the essence of this historic character. Highly animated and with a forelock of black hair, Carriere is a dashing and dramatic presence.
As jumbled as it is, Death Comes for the War Poets has merit as an exploration of the eternally fascinating and sad subject of the “War to End All Wars.”
Death Comes for the War Poets (through June 24, 2017)
Blackfriars Repertory Theatre and Storm Theatre Company
The Sheen Center’s Black Box Theater, 18 Bleecker Street, in Manhattan
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission