Jeffrey Howell

HOME FRONT: Michael James Reed and Samantha Shelton star in Jessica Goldberg's "Body Politic," currently on stage at the Zephyr Theatre in West Hollywood. (Jeffrey Howell)

Wendy Hoffman (Kristina Lear), an earnest screenwriter with an attractive, low-key style, wants to tell the story of injured vets at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Capt. Gray Whitrock (Michael James Reed), a strapping military guy with a prosthetic foot and a by-the-book manner, is the gatekeeper to the ward. Their verbal tug-of-war -- laden with as much partisan disdain as sneaky sexual subtext -- establishes the serious game of Jessica Goldberg's new play, "Body Politic."

This short but slow drama -- scrupulously staged by Echo Theater Company artistic director Chris Fields at the Zephyr Theatre -- crisscrosses conversations in a way that is meant to suggest unexpected similarities between Hollywood and the Pentagon, liberal and conservative hard-liners and however you care to describe the two sides at loggerheads over the Iraq war. Tense and talky, the work rewards concentration with flashes of insight, but the playwright still seems uncertain of the quarry she's stalking.

Goldberg, whose plays "Refuge" and "Good Thing" ignited interest with their uncannily observant rhythms of a new, confounded generation, continues to impress with her ability to record the idiosyncratic cadences of consciousness. Blips and blunders, hesitations and effusions, rap and double-talk -- the more language skids, the more it reveals of the speaker.

The women here are more finely drawn than the men. Lydia (Samantha Shelton), Gray's cutie-pie wife with the Southern lilt and ready pitcher of lemonade, turns out to be as psychologically slippery as Wendy, who's captured by Lear with a stare that's part scowl, part come-on.

But all of the characters are endowed with shadows. Gray's robotic loyalty has the deadened emotional quality of someone whose cherished ideals have been shattered. And Jeremy Maxwell finds variegated truth in his portrayals of Eric, the oily junior movie exec trying to green-light Wendy's film, and Pvt. Small, a blinded soldier who remains for much of the play symbolically hidden.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com