Armie Hammer turns his fingers into an imaginary gun, puts it in his mouth, and pulls the trigger (his thumb.) He is portraying US Army Sergeant Joe Garnier, who is on leave with his wife and two warrior buddies in his trailer at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Pennsylvania
His private gesture comes near the beginning of “Sundogs,” a play that is introduced by the co-founder of Stop Soldier Suicide, a non-profit which is receiving a portion of the Play-PerView ticket revenue. The play by Howard Emanuel, which opened Sunday, is available until November 12th, the day after Veterans Day.
No one will be surprised, in other words, that “Sundogs” is about the challenges facing Americans in the military.
“We came back different,” Joe says to his buddies. “We gotta do something to bring ourselves, our real selves, back. War cannot be what gives us meaning. We must create our own.”
And so Joe, who hears drums in the morning, becomes set on creating a ritual by day’s end involving those drums, a totem pole that he will carve, and something called a Grandfather flute.
His wife Lizzie (Jenn Gambatese), who did not hear any drums, is concerned for Joe’s mental health, as his best friend James (Maurice Jones.) James has his own issues, some of which we don’t learn until later. Somebody put an ad in the local paper announcing James’ engagement to his boyfriend, which may jeopardize his assignment when he returns to Fort Bragg. Mikey (Jordan Bridges), who was blinded in an attack overseas in which both Joe and James were involved, is all in with Joe’s ritual. Rounding out the cast of characters is Lizzie’s slow-witted brother Timmy (Tobias Segal.)
All five performances in this Zoom reading add some texture to what is fairly thin material (and stretched out too long.). “Sundogs” would surely work better as a fully-staged production, so that its familiar themes and characters would be enriched by what the playwright seems to intend as an atmosphere thick with hints of man’s puny place in the unfathomable cosmos — an incessantly barking dog, the mystical beat of the drums, the shocking gun shot, a meteor shower etc. (Could the director not have hired a sound designer, rather than just a narrator to read these as stage directions?) Also lost is some charming business — Joe and Lizzie are in what senses is a long-running contest to rack up the greater number of ambush kisses on the nose (again, something we only hear about.) Still, by the end of “Sundogs,” secrets have been revealed, humor shared, insights driven home, and, even, ultimately, optimism spread – accompanied by some terrific facial expressions, credibly communicating the intense emotions of people searching for meaning and seeking to reclaim their spirit.
by Howard Emanuel
Directed by Heather Arnson
Running time: about 2 hours and 10 minutes
$5 to $25
Armie Hammer as Joe,Jordan Bridges as Mikie, Jenn Gambatese as Lizzie, Maurice Jones as James,Grace Porter as narrator, Tobias Segal as Timmy