We all know, intellectually, that the returning veterans from America’s wars in the Middle East are suffering greatly: PTSD, drug addictions, high suicide rates, mental and physical disabilities, difficulty holding down jobs and reintegrating into civilian society. But specific stories always pack a stronger emotional punch than sweeping statistics, and Christina Masciotti’s Raw Bacon from Poland really digs into the details, in the story of a Marine veteran with an intricately interwoven set of problems–and not nearly enough skills to solve them. Dennis Toledo (Joel Perez) comes from a family pretty lacking in emotional and economic stability to begin with, as we learn over the course of the play: his father is homeless, his brother deals illegal guns, his wife and mother-in-law both use heroin. And things have only gotten worse for Dennis since he returned home to New York City from a Marine tour of Iraq. Plagued by anxiety and insomnia (we in the audience can armchair-diagnose PTSD, though it doesn’t seem that Dennis has an official diagnosis at first), he self-medicates with a cocktail of drugs and alcohol. He’s working for minimum wage plus minimal commissions at a high-end shoe store. And he can’t keep a handle on his anger, winding up with a domestic violence arrest and a divorce. As the play begins, he’s been lucky enough to get placed with Brooklyn Treatment Court, where a jaded but dedicated social worker, Alice (Kate Benson), is trying to keep him out of Rikers Island.
Dennis has aspirations–he wants to become a personal trainer and, above all, he wants shared custody of his six-year-old daughter–but no idea how to go about achieving them, and seemingly no ability to follow through on his treatment program or to take Alice’s straightforward advice. He misses most of his counseling sessions; he tests positive for drugs or alcohol about half the time; he doesn’t have a stable income (he’s not a very reliable shoe salesman) or a place to live (he’s crashing with his elderly grandmother, along with his father). When he winds up in inpatient rehab and his daughter gets taken from her mother by Child and Family Services, he’s really hit rock bottom, and he needs to find his way through a thicket of nightmares and trauma to glimpse a way out–a way that may involve yet more sacrifices.
Masciotti is thorough, unsparing, and precise about the specifics of Dennis’s existence and the one-step-forward-two-steps-back progress he makes: the failed drug tests; the resentment of the constant twelve-step or group therapy sessions and then of the inpatient treatment; the emotional unpredictability that threatens his job; Alice’s constant repetitions of his options in measured therapy-speak; the reluctance to open up to either his fellow-veteran mentor Freddy (Douglas Scott Streater) or his court-mandated therapist, Ken (Jay Smith); and also the genuine good intentions buried beneath all the chaos and all the mistakes that make up Dennis’s life. While these details are important, though, they’re hardly unique, and the play can get bogged down in them, especially as it proceeds toward the therapy session where Dennis works through a traumatic moment in Iraq that’s plagued him ever since–and wraps up a little too neatly thereafter. And both Ken and Alice are cookie-cutter characters; we’ve seen their like a million times before, and although Benson and Smith do solid work, they’re both serving plot functions for Dennis, not fully realized figures themselves.
The piece is most interesting–more alive, more energetic, more revealing of interesting facets of character–in the moments that don’t deal with Dennis’s issues in such a head-on and literal way: the shoe store scenes with Dennis, his two co-workers Marco (Smith) and John (Streater), and variously insane customers, for example. Masciotti also gives Dennis compellingly manic speech patterns, which are rich with slight malapropisms that are like signposts to the inner workings of his mind. (Perez is wonderful in the role, showing the potential in Dennis for both his own salvation and his own destruction at every turn; he’s sincere and earnest but also unpredictable, lacking in self-awareness, and inclined to shirk responsibility for his worst mistakes.)
Director Ben Williams and set designer Jacob A. Climer have built a physical environment for the piece that heightens the aura of danger and unpredictability. Filled with towering shelves full of a mixture of file boxes, shoe boxes, and other office/retail debris, the set looms over the actors, hemming them in precariously. At Dennis’s moments of maximum instability, pieces of furniture get overturned or collapse, almost as if his emotional turmoil is manifesting itself in physical destruction. (Sometimes he’s literally knocking things over, but not always.) These moments feel more eruptive and unsettling than the person-on-person moments of violence that also intrude.
In the moments that operate on a slightly-less-real plane–Dennis’s nightmares, in particular–Williams has ramped up the surrealism a bit in intriguing ways, adding another layer of off-kilter expectations and emotions to counterbalance the dry seriousness of Dennis’s day-to-day struggle. I wish there were more of these moments; the play is more thought-provoking when it’s a little more elliptical, a little messier. Nonetheless, Masciotti makes it impossible not to feel Dennis’s pain, and to understand the structural and personal obstacles facing him.