The cultural and political consciousness seems inundated at present with responses, treatises, and meditations on the wars we, as a nation, are fighting on multiple fronts. It’s easy to get weary as the art we experience takes on shades of the same tone of protest, with similar notes of anger, frustration, and pleas for peace. The purpose of art, however, is to comment on culture; it means something when so many of the messages are in sync, but it’s easy for a unique voice to get lost in the roar. Jeff Key’s “The Eyes of Babylon” is that rare story of the Iraq War that draws us up out of our seats, into an urgent, implacable need for action.
A one-man, first-person account of a marine’s tour of duty in the Middle East, “The Eyes of Babylon” begins with 9/11 and a family’s concern at what awaits Keys, then a new marine. Following his unit’s deployment to Iraq, Key struggles with the idea that he is not fighting Bin Laden, but Saddam Hussein. His struggle among his own honor code, that of the marines, and the actions he finds himself ordered to take becomes the focal point for much of the play. All of this, of course, is nuts-and-bolts on one level but on another level, unfortunately, maddeningly, all-too-heartbreakingly common in the stories of soldiers as they return home.
The bulk of the script is taken from Key’s diaries; it’s more than just a combat record, but a direct account of the children, adults, and animals he meets along the way. We get stories of his bunkmates, the soldiers he befriends, the hideous “Cruels” — those marines so emotionally scarred by the war that they take their anger out in any horrific, thoughtless avenue available to them — and a sobering elegy for a fallen comrade.
All of this is worth noting and worth seeing. But it’s not what gives this piece its alarming, unique soul. As I mentioned above, I feel like I’ve seen so many of these stories that I’m worn down, weary, helpless in the face of this national tragedy happening half a world away. I’m a part of a generation that found itself hungry for change and then overwhelmed by the massive, detached enormity of the problems this play confronts. And, while I have perhaps seen work that confronts this war with more rage and pathos, with a more agile sense of poetics and a stricter adherence to the tenets of a “well-made” play, I’ve yet to find one with a more earnest message or more accessible heart than “The Eyes of Babylon.”
What makes this play so special is that, in the course of 90 minutes, you legitimately fall for Jeff Key. There’s earnestness to this man that just melts cynicism. I feel like I sat down in that theater with my arms folded and my mind (at least subconsciously) made up about the tone and timbre of what I was about to see, and he won me over. Very quickly, I lost track of Key’s confusion between the intent and action of his duties as a marine and got enjoyably lost in the story of a man out of sorts.
Key is older than most of his fellow marines and his attachment to his notebook establishes him as both a keen observer and an outsider (two qualities that are rarely mutually exclusive). The little details presented are wonderful — Key is a big fan of musicals like “Rent” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and there’s an odd, very present joy in this story of a musical theater junkie stuck in the middle of a desert. Key is completely unafraid to show himself as geeky, detached, sexually frustrated, and lost — and it’s this fragility that really draws you in.
Key’s words, aided by the capable direction of Yuval Hadadi, are the piece’s strongest point. When he’s allowed to stand and deliver, we find ourselves most attached to him. Occasional choices for overdone lighting and sound elements are mercifully brief distractions from an otherwise engaging tale.
And then, of course, there’s a surprise. The promotional efforts for “The Eyes of Babylon” leave a primary element of Key’s life and his story out — and perhaps this is on purpose. I found myself taken off-guard by what begins as a subtle revelation and then completely drawn in by this aspect of Key’s personality. I’m not going to spoil it here, as a big portion of my enjoyment of the play came from discovering this within the context of the story, but it’s a different and equally omnipresent concern in national discussions about servicemen. By the time Key’s tour of duty reaches its end, with a sample of an interview with Key by CNN’s Greta Van Susteren, you’re right there with him, locked in the feelings of this man stuck somewhere between the country he loves, the orders he had, and his own personal sense of right and wrong.
The audience at the performance I attended was generally an older crowd, with several servicemen in attendance. I have a homework assignment for you, reader: when you see this show, bring along a friend, a child, someone in your life who is young, frustrated, and stuck in those moments of disenfranchisement these wars have brought to us. This is perhaps the first dramatic work to come to our area to actually rouse enough emotion from us to stimulate true, actionable dialogue.
“The Eyes of Babylon,” through Sunday, April 3, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. Drama by Jeff Key based on his experiences in Iraq. Strong language and politically charged content. $31 to $39. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org. Note: The play moves Off-Broadway from June 14 to July 3, 59E59 Theater. Tickets are now on sale. Visit www.theeyesofbabylon.com.