Shem Bitterman's new play Harm's Way, currently playing in repertory with his Man.Gov, tries hard to be a lot of things, but doesn't quite succeed at any of them. Tackling the power of the press, fathers and daughters, and the question of accountability, the play answers none of the questions it raises. Bitterman frequently drops bombshells that fail to detonate, including a revelation at the end of Act One that's never fully addressed.
When his "simple" daughter Bianca (Sarah Foret) runs off with a soldier involved in a questionable incident overseas, Major John Fredericks (Jack Stehlin) enlists muckracking journalist Constance (Wendy Makkena) to help find them. Along the way, we're treated to incest, tentative stabs at romance, and suicide. But none of it, under Steve Zuckerman's direction, rings true.
Part of the blame lies with Bitterman's off-putting, portentous dialogue. The material cries out for a subtler treatment. Relying too often on people reading aloud to themselves — or Bianca having a conversation with inner voices — no one's words sound natural.
But none of the characters are exactly three-dimensional. Fredericks is the hard-assed Army man; Bianca the fragile woman-child; and her lover Nick is the country bumpkin who enlisted out of desperation. Only Constance seems fully fleshed-out, mostly thanks to Makkena's performance. Taking what could have been a stereotypical soulless reporter role and running with it, Makkena alone comes across as a real person, someone who speaks between a whisper or a roar.
What's most disappointing about Harm's Way is that nothing new is said. Soldiers do bad things over there when they're in over their heads is the most Bitterman has to say, while condemning the government for not taking a more solid stance against war atrocities. But it's hard to care about his message when his characters are all cardboard thin.
Presented by Circus Theatricals at the 45th Street Theatre, 354 W. 45th St., NYC. Oct. 18-Nov. 8. Playing in repertory with "Man. Gov." Thu. and Sat., 8 p.m. (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com.