Unfair expectations?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Before you go see Rajiv Joseph's world-premiere Archduke, google the details of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. It reads like something of a deadly macabre farce. If the plot hadn't put into motion World War I you could mistake it for the keystone cops: a bomb bouncing off a car, cyanide pills that didn't work, and then a wrong turn that brought a failed assassin horrific success.

These details of a bumbling, hapless group of, quite literally, sick young men would seem to be what served as inspiration for the playwright. Rajiv Joseph, whose name you likely know from his 2009 play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo or the more recent Guards at the Taj, has written a broad comedy that's waging an odd skirmish with expectation.

It's expectation that proves to be the biggest threat to Archduke.

Here's a wonderfully talented playwright who's written two plays that have provided shocking political and artistic insight into world events, commissioned to write a play about an event that colored most of the last century. The play, set in Serbia in 1914, takes as its animating force the question: what would drive 3 young men to become martyrs? Against the global backdrop of 2017, where martyrdom and nationalism feel less like historical relics and more like current headlines, that seems like a question worth answering, especially by a playwright as sophisticated as Mr. Joseph.

Unfortunately, Archduke is in it more for the laughs than the insight.

The play follows three young men who, having received the dire diagnosis of tuberculosis, fall under the maniacal guidance of a nationalist with a dream of removing the Austro-Hungarian boot from their throats. He lures the young men more with warm food and dessert than dogma but, alas, they find themselves in a luxury train car on the way to Sarajevo to carry out the deed. Then despite the play's two hours and fifteen minutes, history suddenly catches up to them and a hurried conclusion.

"Archduke" feels like a play that can't decide what it wants to be or how to live up to its promise of significance. The closest it comes to finding its voice is when we're being schooled by a crazed nationalist in front of a giant map of Europe. Our three reluctant protagonists are like the class dunces eating up whatever's put in front of them, raising their hands like schoolboys. There's a delicious moment when the question is finally posed "Now . . . Who here knows what a martyr is?"

For a moment the play comes into painful, darkly comic focus and . . . then it moves on.

But that's the question for both the characters and the audience. What makes a martyr? Archduke poses the question but then offers answers that never feel specific to these young men: sickness, hunger, poverty, oppression. What we're left with is generalities. Maybe it's unfair to expect a playwright to solve this kind of historical riddle of young men suddenly thrust into the spotlight of history?

Then again, that's exactly what Mr. Joseph did in his play Guards at the Taj.

Archduke plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through June 4.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission.

Photo: (L-R) Stephen Stocking, Patrick Page, Ramiz Monsef and Josiah Bania in the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph's Archduke. (Craig Schwartz)