War-weary TV hands in El Salvador: a tough look

El Salvador Play by Rafael Lima. Directed by John Bishop. ``El Salvador,'' by Rafael Lima, assembles a group of cynically world-weary, war-weary American journalists in a Central American setting. The business of the six TV newsmen headquartered in an El Salvador hotel room in 1981 is covering the dirty war between government forces and guerrillas.

The play grew out of Mr. Lima's one-year tour of duty as a free-lancer in El Salvador. The results reflect the author's own disenchantment as well as his more-than-candid view of the professionals assigned to a battle zone with more than its share of carnage and horrors. ``El Salvador'' is scarcely calculated to inspire the spectator's confidence in the 6 o'clock news.

If the characters are generally familiar, the writing is sharp and at times brutally shocking. Working under besotted bureau chief Fletcher (John Spencer) is bespectacled newcomer McCutcheon (John Dossett). The tyro's naivet'e is played off against the derision of the camera crew involved in the risky business of providing the pictures for McCutcheon's voice-overs (delivered in the relative safety of the bureau).

But although their shells are harder, the veterans are by no means immune to the emotional stresses that erupt in the course of post-battle exchanges and tense confrontations.

The authority of the characterization is well realized in the Circle Repertory Company performance staged by John Bishop. In addition to those already mentioned, the cast includes Michael Ayr as a battle-fatigued cameraman who sniffs cocaine, Zane Lasky as his assistant, Bruce McCarty as the bureau technician, and Cotter Smith as a lensman whose verbal flights have a sinister undertone. Lorraine Morin-Torre makes a brief appearance as a pathetically pretty young prostitute who fortunately escapes her would-be customers.

While the dialogues in the hotel-room bureau are periodically interrupted by the outside noises of buzzing helicopter gunships and small arms fire, there are no surprises in Lima's brief drama. His evident deeper concerns - for the plight of the Salvadoreans, the tragedies of the ``disappeared,'' and the matter of direct or indirect American involvement - are for the most part tangentially expressed.

The Circle Repertory Company has responded to this promising play by a new playwright with a solid production which features a David Potts setting as messy as the lives of its occupants, lighting by Dennis Parichy, and costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser.

``El Salvador'' is scheduled to run through Nov. 1.

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