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'Eclipsed' review: Lupita Nyong'o radiant in earnest Liberian war drama

From left, Pascale Armand, Saycon Sengbloh and Lupita

From left, Pascale Armand, Saycon Sengbloh and Lupita Nyong'o in "Eclipsed," written by Danai Gurira and directed by Liesl Tommy, at The Public Theater. Credit: Joan Marcus

Somehow, in the tiny crack between her Oscar-winning breakthrough in "12 Years a Slave" and her upcoming elevation into pop iconography in the new "Star Wars" movie, Lupita Nyong'o has squeezed in her New York stage debut.

It says much about the gifted Kenya-raised beauty and fashion favorite that she did not choose some high-gloss Broadway vehicle or a romp through greatest-hits material for her first stage work since the Oscar catapulted her onto not one but two Vogue covers. Instead, she personally picked "Eclipsed," an intense ensemble piece about captive women who serviced war lords during the second Liberian civil war.

Nyong'o is as compelling in person as on screen, first as the newest wife of the unseen man the women in the shack call the CO, a tyrant for whom they stand at attention while he gestures to his recreational choice of the moment. Called in the program The Girl, Nyong'o's character is anything but generic -- a literate, thoughtful, self-possessed child-woman who, faced with ongoing powerlessness, discovers she also has a monstrous killing machine inside.

Playwright Danai Gurira, director Liesl Tommy and most of the five-woman cast have roots in parts of Africa. The production leaves no doubt that this is a labor of love.

I wish I could say something more enthusiastic. But "Eclipsed," for which Nyong'o was an understudy while at the Yale Drama School in 2009, is a sincere, intricately detailed but simplistically obvious story about the oppression of women as a weapon of war. The drama, which has been seen over the years in Washington, South Africa, Zimbabwe and London, is in its New York premiere. Many boldface people -- Oprah, Stevie Wonder -- were at the performance I attended. Given their standing ovation, perhaps they perceived something I did not.

Gurira -- who, incidentally, plays Michonne in "The Walking Dead" -- wants us to understand the awful choices available to these women. We meet the ones oppressed as sex slaves (Nyong'o, Pascale Armand, Saycon Sengbloh) and one of the women (Zainab Jah) who joins the rebels to get power but ends up worse than a mercenary. The heroes are the women peacemakers (exemplified by Akosua Busia) who actually did end the war in 2003. Influences from the outside world (including a book about Bill Clinton) are comically misinterpreted. And there is a heartfelt but heavy-handed message about how important it is for dislocated women to remember the names their families gave them.

The action is set mostly in a dingy, bullet-riddled hovel filled with castoff clothes and other loot from the raids. Alas, much of the high-energy acting feels cartoony. For all the passion and the radiance of Nyong'o, it is hard not to compare this to "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's multi-textured 2009 Pulitzer winner about the plight of women in the Congo civil war.

WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

INFO $90; 212-967-7555;

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