Review: ‘The War Boys’ at Ally Theatre Company is raw and riveting

A major American writer exposes what MAGA is really about.

The animus being whipped up against “invaders” at our southern border lends Naomi Wallace’s 1993 The War Boys an unsettling resonance. Written when she was but 26, the play is about three men in their early twenties, freelance vigilantes, who spend their nights scouting for fugitive “beaners” at the Texas-Mexico border. With nervy theatrical flair, The War Boys takes us into the messed-up dynamics of their macho game playing and ostensible friendship. Under the tight and insightful direction of Matt Ripa, Ally Theatre Company’s production is a raw and riveting look at the nexus of manhood, misogyny, and xenophobia.

Robert Pike (George) and Eli Pendry (David) in ‘The War Boys.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Ally recently received the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company for its record of producing (in its words) “theatre designed to engage audiences through acknowledging and confronting systemic oppression in America.” What’s extraordinary about Ally’s choice to give The War Boys its DC-area premiere—and what makes the work so arresting and timely—is that it cracks open for conversation the very lynchpin of oppression: the psychotic conflicts among and between wannabe real men that require resolution in the degradation of others.

The characters are two and a half white men, the “half” being Greg (Jhonny Maldonado), whose father was a sadistic U.S. border patrol agent and whose mother was Mexican. The leader of this puerile pack is David (Eli Pendry), a Stanford-educated rich kid. The third member is dim, working-class George (Robert Pike), who needs to get home to care for his sick little bro. Each of them has a disturbing story to tell—and retell, as it turns out, for on this night, their Border Brigade deal with the Feds (ten dollars per “wetback”) has them waiting around to report suspects with not much to do but cockfight.

Jhonny Maldonado (Greg) and, behind him, Robert Pike (George) in ‘The War Boys.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

There is a subtle echo of Waiting for Godot here. The stark set by Scenic Designer Emily Lotz is a stretch of sand punctuated not by a cragged tree but by a green sapling (which David is determined to nurture). There’s also the wreck of a 4×4, all framed within a proscenium of chainlink and vertical slats that eerily evokes the wall at the border now.

Lighting Designer Katie McCreary artfully focuses each young man as he reveals to us his backstory. Costume Designer Julie Cray Leong has the boys in knockabout wear, some of which comes off. Sound Designer Niusha Nawab inserts inspired transition tracks, including at one point a church organ and marching feet. And Fight and Intimacy Choreographer Chris Niebling delivers a jolting succession of gut-punch effects.

Eli Pendry (David) in ‘The War Boys.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

The acting ensemble is excellent—especially in their characters’ quasi-autobiographical speeches. We can believe they’ve been homeys since high school. We can believe the intimidating dominance they do to one another is part of what bonds them. We can sense there’s hella homoeroticism just beneath. And we can see how essential to these white men’s fellowship is their shared superiority to others.

For Greg, though, it’s not so simple. He refers several times to the fact he’s half WASP, half Mexican, and his divided loyalties trigger an explosive ending that leaves one speechless.

Wallace’s coarse, intense, and crafted writing in The War Boys packs every moment with menace and suspense. Be advised, the soul-baring stories the young men tell solo are brutal and lewd. It is never quite clear what really happened and what’s boy-bond embellishment; but for certain, these young men’s path to manhood was mined with violence and vitriol.

Jhonny Maldonado (Greg), Eli Pendry (David), Robert Pike (George), and Robert Pike (George) in ‘The War Boys.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

The War Boys, incredibly, was Wallace’s very first play. How she so credibly captured the combative culture of a men’s zone is a wonder. She went on to a distinguished career as playwright and screenwriter (with her significant other, Bruce McLeod, she scripted the 2009 film The War Boys, based very approximately on this play). Among many awards, she got a MacArthur “genius grant.”

Naomi Wallace is a major American writer who here exposes what MAGA is really about. Ally Theatre has done The War Boys justice. It deserves be seen, and it needs to be discussed.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

The War Boys plays through August 31, 2019, at Ally Theatre Company performing at Joe’s Movement Emporium, 3309 Bunker Hill Road, Mount Rainier, MD. Tickets are available online.

Ally Theatre Company has two events coming up at Joe’s Movement Emporium that will help audiences process what they’ve seen in The War Boys.  

Wednesday August 21, 7:00 pm
Community Film Screening: Ay Mariposa
Ally Theatre Company, in conjunction with its current production The War Boys, is pleased to host a Community Screening of Ay Mariposa, a documentary film about two women and a rare community of butterflies standing on the front lines in a battle against the US-Mexico border wall. A short discussion will be held after the film.
$10 suggested donation. Tickets are available here.

Saturday August 24, after the 2:00 pm matinee
Panel Discussion: Made in the USA: How American Culture Breeds a Unique Blend of Racism and Misogyny in Men
Stay after the show for a panel with the cast, director Matt Ripa, and special guests from Men Can Stop Rape and EVRYMAN as we discuss the themes of masculinity in The War Boys and ways in which men can help each other to prevent and stop violence in themselves and their communities.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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