"If I'm losing sleep just over watching a YouTube video, I just can't even imagine what that experience is like," Seth Numrich explained. "So my goal is, in some way, to try to tell these stories as truthful as to what my imagining of it [is], and I recognize it's never going to be the real deal."
Numrich plays Smith, a soldier, in Daniel Talbott's Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait, which opened June 9 at the Gym at Judson. The space has been converted to an unnamed space in the desert, with sand inching up to the front row of the audience — and only two soldiers remain. It's unclear as to why they're there and why they're alone, but they are stranded — and must survive off of the last of their water and bars of food.
"I've never experienced this," said Numrich, "and I'll never fully know what the types of experiences might be, but [we're] trying to do our best to honor the stories and be truthful to that experience. It's something that's not easy…"
Numrich's character is going crazy in the desert heat. With no one else to turn to except for his friend Leadem (Brian Miskell), he doesn't know what to do with himself, so he bides his time with push-ups and talk of Playboy centerfolds. How did he prepare for the role, both physically and mentally?
"We were fortunate to have David Anzuelo, who is an incredible fight and movement choreographer and is also a black belt in several different forms of martial arts, so he's a real guru when it comes to fitness and training and all those things," said Numrich. "He put us through some pretty intense boot camp-type situations of doing military-inspired callisthenic routines and more pushups than you can imagine. Every day we would get pushed to a physical extreme at the beginning of rehearsal for the first couple weeks. That was hugely helpful — just to get us all into a place where we were even ready to start thinking about doing the types of things that [playwright] Danny [Talbott] wanted in the play.
"It was also helpful to get a taste of that discipline of doing this every day. You've got to show up, and you're expected to push yourself to your limits. For us, in that rehearsal room, running around and doing that stuff, is a fraction of the type of discipline that these guys — men and women who are in these situations every day — have to carry, or their lives are in danger without it."
This is not the first time Numrich has played a soldier. He was Sam Singleton in "Private Romeo," a 2011 film adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that paired him opposite Matt Doyle (Numrich was the Romeo to Doyle's Juliet; the two also co-starred in Broadway's War Horse). And, in his last Broadway outing, he played boxer Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy, so he's no stranger to discipline and demands.
"I'd like to think that I would have the courage and everything required for that type of work and life," Numrich said of the soldier lifestyle, "but I really don't know if I do, especially with this one — pushing myself beyond my comfort zone of watching videos of experiences. I've seen little 4x4-inch YouTube videos of some really horrible things, and the idea of actually, physically being present for those types of situations — I don't think I'd be ready, and I'm in a place where just from watching those things and trying to envision those situations it's hard to sleep at night. It's hard to get back to myself in a way where I feel comfortable."
Although the show's themes may be hard to swallow, Numrich was excited by the chance to take on Talbott's material. The two met through friends at Juilliard, and Numrich has always been a fan of his work.
"It's definitely in his voice, but it felt like a departure and a real brave and courageous step for him to be taking on this type of subject matter," he said. "I'm so impressed by that, and I was moved by it, and I connected to the characters, and I was just really taken by the script… I'm just so happy and honored to be a part of it and to be working with this incredible ensemble and this company. There's nothing I'd rather be doing right now."
Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait plays downtown through June 27.
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)