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Silo Guys

A Brief Conversation With Playwright Keith Reddin

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Keith Reddin looks like Chekhov on vacation. Chekhov on vacation, as played by Woody Allen. A 33-year-old sometime actor who's better known for writing plays than for appearing in them, Reddin's got the Chekhovian head of tousled brown hair and the delicate, boyish, interested face. No pince-nez or beard, though, and no fin de siecle aura of formality at all. Woody-thin and Woody-bookish, Reddin slouches, nearly folded up in his chair, wearing a slouchy sweater over slouchy pants.

There's some Woody in the voice, too: in the quick, emphatic cadences, and the tinge of New York college-boy whine. And like Woody, he tends to turn tics into elements of verbal style, filling up the pauses with vast numbers of I means, you knows, and likes.

The confluence of Chekhov and Allen is in Reddin's plays as well. Works like his recent Big Time combine Chekhovian anomie with a Woodoid sense of the absurd. All sorts of cataclysmic events are taking place in Big Time: the world's basically going to hell, with Islamic revolutionaries toppling American client states while shahlike autocrats work one too many swindles. Yuppie banker Paul finds himself right in the middle of the whole thing--but the only way he can think about it is in terms of his career. Like Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, discussing billiards while the Russian social system collapses and she loses her orchards--the classic instance of failing to see the forest for the trees--Paul's too trivial and egocentric, too lost in his pathetic maneuvers, to get even the faintest picture of what's actually going on.

The difference between the two characters is that where Chekhov's aristocrat attains a painful grandeur--the classic example of the beautiful loser--Reddin's yup just moves from sick to grotesque. He's so chillingly unconscious, so frighteningly superficial, it's funny.

Whether Reddin would acknowledge the Chekhov/Allen parallel in his look and work, I can't say for sure. I didn't think to ask him about it when we met recently, outside a rehearsal room where David Petrarca was leading cast members through the American Blues Theater production of Reddin's Peacekeeper. When he talks about influences, Reddin mentions John Guare, with whom he studied at the Yale drama school; Howard Brenton, who writes nasty sharp-left broadsides; and David Mamet: "I don't know anybody alive who's writing today who's not influenced by Mamet." Woody and Anton don't come up.

Still, the strategy's there--and not only in Big Time, either. Reddin characteristically puts his people in earthshaking situations that they may never quite recognize as earthshaking--or that they understand only dimly, in terms of what the tremors are doing to their personal equilibrium. "All the plays," he says, "--I mean, I'm not even aware of this pattern, but it sort of turns out this way--they're always about an individual in this very dangerous world."

Peacekeeper's no exception. The fifth of six plays Reddin's written over the last six years, Peacekeeper drops an individual named Dean Swift into the prairie-bland but distinctly dangerous world of a Strategic Air Command missile site outside of Omaha, Nebraska.

A synapse in our nation's nuclear nervous system, Lieutenant Swift spends 24-hour shifts 50 feet underground, in a bunker next to an MX missile aimed at Gorbachev's birthmark. This is quite an honor for Swift. As Reddin told me, "The people aren't drafted into this assignment. They volunteer; and for them in the Air Force this is a very prestige job, because it's like first line of defense and they feel 'This is very important and I'm keeping the world safe because we're doing deterrents. I protect democracy.'"

Even so, the job is something less, something considerably less than interesting. Swift and his partner, Henry Fielding, just basically sit there, waiting for World War III to start. When it does, they'll have about 20 minutes of real he-man wartime action, reciting codes and turning keys. But until then it's a bore.

Stressful, too. Not only are Swift and Fielding capable of ending the world, they're also duty-bound to end it with a minimum of discussion--and certainly without any speculations as to the ethics and consequences of their actions. If one of them hesitates when the order's given, the other's expected to shoot him. Needless to say, this isn't conducive to the free exchange of ideas.

Nevertheless, Swift hesitates. Not much. Not for long. Not at a critical moment. Not even consciously, really. But just enough to shake his personal equilibrium--mess up his marriage, his career, his sense of who he is.

"So the play's about what happens if one guy--" Reddin said, and stopped a moment. "He's not a brilliant man, or an incredibly moral political guy. He's just a guy who thinks too much, and he's the wrong guy for this job. Because the job is all about being unquestioning and never really raising the issue of, like, Could you do it?... The whole system is predicated on the idea that no one ever questions that. No one ever has any doubts. There's never any hesitation."

Glasnost, Reddin remarked, only "makes it more poignant--that these guys, eventually...they'll become obsolete."

Peacekeeper developed out of a documentary project that never happened. "I had been asked a couple of years ago by public television," Reddin recalled, "to maybe write this miniseries about nuclear deterrents: different systems like the air-, sea-, and land-based missile systems. So they gave me all this material. They didn't get the funding for this series, but I had all this research material.

"I was concentrating on the people in the silos, that part of the nuclear system. And I started getting to think about these two guys down there--because they're on 24-hour shifts, you know; they're 50 feet underground, and they're not really supposed to talk about what they do. And I thought, 'Well, what the hell do they talk about?' So the first scene that I wrote was actually one of the scenes in the silo, where the two guys were talking, 'cause I was trying to figure out what they'd say. And from there I sort of moved further out, like, 'Well, then if this is their job, what happens on their off time, when they go to a bar? And then, if they're married, what would their home life be like?'

"The more research I did, it was very depressing--because these people become schizophrenic or alcoholics. Statistically true. It's a very hard job to do. I mean--I don't know--first of all, how can anybody do it? But secondly, in addition to it being incredibly boring sitting there all that time and waiting for this thing to happen, emotionally and mentally it's very hard because I don't know how somebody can do that and still, all the time, deny what the repercussions of his job are. You know, because they're supposed to be ready to never fire these thingsÉbut at the same time, ready to do it. And if they do it they have to assumeÉit's the end of the world.

"Their whole lives are denial--denial of what they do.... Every minute there's somebody down there, ready to go."

Reddin acknowledges that this is heavy, highly charged material. True to the Chekhovian model, however, he insists on the humor and humanity of the play itself--insists on keeping it small. "That's conscious on my part," he said, "to write about something that interests me about some idea or issue. But I try not to make it agitprop. I try to make it about the people, and that's the context: it's a missile silo, but it's about individuals. It's not about the policymakers, and they don't have long arguments like, 'Let's talk about deterrence, the ethics of deterrence.'

"The audience needs somebody to latch onto," he continued. "They need somebody to come forward in the play, and we say, 'This is the guy who's going on the journey, and we'll see how he does.'"

And yet, Peacekeeper's not all sweet empathy. A gleeful, high-pitched, clearly Woodyish malice creeps into Reddin's voice as he talks about a scene where Swift and Fielding sit silent for a disconcertingly long time: "I love making the audience uncomfortable like that. They really were squirming in their seats. It was great."

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