Tony Zertuche’s play, Anchors, in which a would-be artist with a startling lack of follow-through in life enlists in the Navy, hits on some very topical subject matter in this wartime era. Yet perhaps Zertuche has chosen too much material for his play to tackle. Despite a uniformly sterling cast and a fascinating attention to detail, the bigger picture at play in Anchors, directed by Eliza Beckwith, becomes cloudy and unfocused.
Anchors feels a little schizophrenic from the start. We first see two young Filipino girls braiding each other’s hair to the tune of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.” However, the next scene features several new recruits, who dominate much of the rest of the play’s action: Officers Goliad (Renaldy Smith) and Lewis (Raushanah Simmons). Goliad has joined the U.S. Navy in 1989 as a means of paying for his college education. However, his lack of discipline and the disrespect of his commanding officers convince him that he needs to find a way out, so eventually he gets stationed in the Philippines, where he makes a friend, the hedonistic officer Schotz (Bryan Close) and finds a lover, Grace (Banaue Miclat). Goliad finds himself on borrowed time as the end of his two-year enlistment may not come before Operation Desert Storm sends him into battle.
Its military setting does not necessarily make Anchors a serious show; in fact, Zertuche riddles the play with jokes and puerile behavior, particularly as Goliad and Schotz bond over drinks and women. (Presumably, Zertuche drew from his own experiences in the navy for these scenes.) All of the actors involved – including the terrific Helen Coxe and Andrew Eisenman as Chiefs Diaz and Pusser, who haze Goliad and Lewis, and the underutilized but impressive Laura Hall and Kyle Masteller as fellow recruits – demonstrate excellent timing and line delivery. Zertuche’s scenes themselves, however, hover too close to the middle ground, as if he were afraid to make Anchors either an out-and-out satire or a straight military drama.
Structurally, the play is also confusing. Temporal logic, I assume, dictates that the first act must take place in 1989 and the second in 1991 as the Gulf War approaches. However, these two acts feel unbalanced. Miclat does not appear as an adult Grace (she was one of the young girls in the play’s first scene) until at the tail end of the first act, only to emerge as a major character in the shorter second act. By then, Zertuche has immersed us so far in Goliad’s story and interests it feels unearned for Anchors to become Grace’s story as well; their relationship feels hollow and rushed.
One solution is to pad Anchors with more plot so its characters do not seem to continue leaving and then re-appearing at random intervals. Lewis, for example, re-emerges late in the second act to make a confession that holds little dramatic weight and distracts from the current arc of the show at that point. If Zertuche had granted either Grace or Lewis more gravitas and plot time earlier on and throughout the work, their later stage time would feel more integral, and perhaps pack more of a punch. Perhaps Beckwith could have trimmed several scenes, or streamlined the two acts into something more congruent.
Though it does not work as a split narrative between Goliad and Grace, both actors fully commit to their roles. I was amazed at how fluidly Smith was able to segue from one aspect of Smith’s personality to another, painting him as a hot-blooded young man that also had real dreams, desires, fears and ambitions. Miclat might have had to work overtime to create a three-dimensional woman out of the blueprint Zertuche provides for grace, but the performance itself feels effortless and as real as if she were currently living in the Philippine islands.
Close also stands out with a remarkably specific supporting turn. The lack of rules for soldiers serving in the Philippines creates just the kind of freedom he likes, causing him to re-up. His path provides a glimpse into one possible path for Smith’s future. One of Zertuche’s greatest gifts on display in Anchors is how specific he makes his setting. The playwright has a real feel for the tempo and jargon of military life and believably immerses his characters into Filipino culture. His period details are crucial to bolstering the actors’ performances.
Ultimately, though, these details do not all converge into one clear vision because the scope of Anchors is too narrow for the full heft of its demands. Zertuche introduces several different themes about maturity, war, imperialism, political relations and human relations, but like his protagonist, he cannot quite follow through on any of them.