‘Bury the Dead’ at the Actors’ Gang

Special to The Times

Every American war, Gen. Henry Shelton once observed, must pass the “Dover test”: the public’s ability to tolerate the sight of slain servicemen and women arriving at Dover Air Force Base in flag-draped caskets. Since 1991, however, the Pentagon has banned press photography at the base, essentially rendering the human cost of the Iraq war -- at least the American side of the tab -- invisible.

War casualties as an image problem are the conundrum in “Bury the Dead,” Irwin Shaw’s righteous, funny and painfully relevant 1936 one-act now playing at the Actors’ Gang. The author had just graduated from college when his antiwar drama landed on Broadway, and this is very much a young man’s play, its ethos driven by core pleasures (a woman’s smile, a cold beer, the dream of a future) and an instinctive distrust of authority.

Lights up on a bleak field, where a couple of beleaguered doughboys (Seth Compton and Rick Gifford) dig a communal grave for six of their fallen comrades. No sooner have they started to cover the corpses in the dirt when slowly, eerily, the six stiffs climb to their feet and stare down the living. Yes, they’re dead all right, but they’ve decided to stick around, having had their lives cut obscenely short by what they term “the general’s real estate,” a few bloody yards of battleground. Flummoxed, their thoughtful captain (Simon Anthony Abou-Fadel) turns to Army brass, religious leaders and finally the fairer sex to convince their deceased loved ones to go gently into that good night.

Director Matthew Huffman’s production has directness, if not always grace. Yet lapses in pacing and nuance seem minor, given the unapologetic rage and humor with which Shaw pursues his premise. The play may wear a liberal heart on its sleeve, but as a passionate rebuke to the cynical image control perpetrated throughout the Iraq war, “Bury the Dead’s” insights sting.

Shaw argues with characters, not ideology, and the show succeeds most when its performers’ specifics burrow into your gut. John Pick and Brian Allman are memorable as uncooperative corpses. And the exchange between Pvt. Dean (Jesse Luken) and his mother (Annemette Andersen) may raise the hair on the back of your neck. But nothing is as unnerving as the steady gaze of the dead out at the audience. They dare us to forget them.

“Bury the Dead,” the Actors’ Gang, Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 13. $25. Contact: (310) 838-GANG. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.