‘The War Boys’: A Timely Tale of the Border

The NYC premiere of The War Boys. From left to right, actor Sea McHale playing George, Gabriel Sloyer playing Greg and Wyatt Joseph Fenner playing David. (Photo by Christopher Thompson)

Almost 25 years ago, a young American writer took inspiration from news reports about racist vigilantes in Southern California working to stop immigrants crossing from Mexico into the U.S. and wrote her first play, “The War Boys.”  Uncannily and disturbingly relevant to today’s headlines, the play by Naomi Wallace – who went on to receive numerous awards, including the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship – is only now having its premiere run in New York City, at the Access Theater on Lower Broadway. It’s hard to understand why it took so long.

For Texas-born director James Will McBride, the impulse to bring The War Boys to the stage in New York has been long brewing. While a student at Loyola University in New Orleans six years ago, he worked on another of Wallace’s plays and read all of her works. The War Boys, he said, “haunted me” because of its exploration of the relationships between young men and violence, and how emotions, whether positive or negative, “come out in violent ways.”

Fast forward to 2016, when armed ranchers occupied a national wildlife refuge in Oregon and Donald Trump campaigned to “build a wall.” For McBride, the time was right to bring The War Boys to New York. With support from producer Joshua Morgan and co-producers Judy Blaze and The Artist’s Crossing, McBride was able to make it happen. The play, which opened in March, runs through April 16. [In 2009, a movie called The War Boys was made based on an adaptation of the play, but the play has had only a few productions.]

The play’s setting is deceptively spare – a location at the border where three young men are freelancing as spotters for the U.S. border patrol, periodically training on the desert scrub the headlights of the truck owned by the ringleader among the friends, college-educated David. Joining him on this, one of their regular “patrols,” are Greg, the “working class” son of a U.S. border patrol agent who married a Mexican woman, and George, the seemingly hapless conciliator among the trio.

NYC premiere of The War Boys. Actor Gabriel Sloyer, playing Greg, tackles Wyatt Joseph Fenner, playing David. (Photo by Christopher Thompson)

Written as one continuous and unbroken scene, the play unfolds in raw, gripping and at times terrifying turns, as the characters spar, wrestle, curse, attack and retreat from one another. When they step forward, each in their turn, telling wrenching stories of violence and loss which they then mercilessly critique, we see that they are playing a game of psychological warfare with each other and themselves as much as with the “other,” the immigrants whom they are doing battle to keep out.

“Essentially, it’s one 75-minute-long pissing match,” said Gabriel Sloyer, the actor who plays the complicated and divided character Greg. His character provides the emotional centerpiece for the play, as he struggles to discern right from wrong and “develop his backbone,” Sloyer said. When Greg relates the loss of his true love, the legal chica Evalina – more than once, and with accounts of violence that change and escalate – the half of him with “heart,” the Mexican half, battles the WASP half of him that chases and scorns the “beaners.”

For Wyatt Joseph Fenner, who plays David, the play offers the audience so many things going on at once that it seems “at times like a dreamscape.” That quality suffuses the passages during which the characters tell their stories, and the lighting and the set capture the surreal, dream-like quality of the entire evening the three men spend together at the border, which playwright Wallace imagined as “a place that could be the Mexico/Texas border.”

With its many layers of reality and fantasy and intellectual as well as emotional sparring, the play is “beautiful and it’s open to a lot of interpretation,” said Sea McHale, who plays George. “There’s so much to discover.” The three characters, said McHale, while individuals, “also represent the archetypes of certain parts of our American society.”

The NYC premiere of The War Boys. At left, actor Sea McHale plays George, and at right Wyatt Joseph Fenner plays David. (Photo by Christopher Thompson)

The set is deliberately stripped down, with a truck seat, some tires, a couple of pieces of seemingly petrified wood, and a seedling that plays a symbolic role disproportionate to its size. A sharp cut runs along the back wall, emblematic of the fissures that deepen as the play progresses.

Ostensibly about the geographical border between the U.S. and Mexico, the play is in fact about numerous borders and dividing lines, and the ease or difficulty in traversing them – or even acknowledging them. It’s about the line between violence and nonviolence, the difference between reality and fantasy, the transition from boyhood to manhood. It’s about friendship and repulsion, about the people you know, the people you think you know, and the people you don’t even try to know.

But by the play’s end, said Fenner, it’s also clear that it’s about the profoundly isolating consequences of hate, and how child-like behavior can provoke that isolation. “It’s called The War Boys,” said Fenner. “If you are immature and irresponsible toward others, you will be left alone.”

The War Boys by Naomi Wallace, directed by James Will McBride, starring Gabriel Sloyer, Wyatt Joseph Fenner and Sea McHale, runs through April 16 at Access Theater, 380 Broadway. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online at web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/970771.

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