By CHRSTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
We know Eddie Birdlace made it home. He’s sitting with his drab canvas duffle bag, spit-shined boots and razor-short, military-issue haircut on a San Fransisco bus. He’s a man of few words, but the Dobb’s-crowned gentleman next to him is chatting him up, the way that confident but secluded older citizens take a parental nudge toward somber travelers.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. If you’re old enough, or if you’ve seen the newsreels, you may remember the footage of Bell helicopters being thrown into the ocean and immigrants fleeing the south of the country for California. That’s the backdrop for the musical play Dogfight, a melodic take on young masculinity led astray in overdrive, which Staged! is performing at CoHo through Sunday, November 29.
Dogfight premiered three years ago and has gone on to win critical awards and find a place in the hearts of audiences around the country. And it’s no looking-back on personal history by Vietnam vets: its creators – music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Peter Duchan –are in their 20s. Based upon a little-known B film from the early 1990s starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, Dogfight is a romcom that hits some serious notes on the early ’60s emergence of feminism. There’s a conversational poetry to the lyrics, reminiscent of a young Stephen Sondheim, with a harmonic update influenced by Wicked‘s Stephen Schwartz.
The musical opens with our heroine, waitress Rose Fenny (Barbara Marie), acoustic in hand, belting in a soprano as clear as a winter lake. A music trio sits in the eaves, softly lit; we see their instruments and faces just enough to take in their presence. Take Me Back, she sings, and we’re set up for a Ping Pong game, batting between a Saturday-night group of young Marines stalking the streets of San Fransisco as civilians before they head off to a “country near India, called ‘Nam,” and back to Eddie Birdlace’s return. The opening song has some Pink Floyd and psychedelic-era Rascals motifs, with a standard Broadway foundation. Many of the numbers have this hybrid quality of’ ’60’s pop/rock, folk, or R&B: while they don’t mimic the hectic sounds of James Brown, the blood harmony and doo wop-esque sounds of early Simon & Garfunkel, or Bob Dylan’s wailing fuzz guitar (which is still under-appreciated) and intellectual blues chords, there’s enough there to fill our senses. The Broadway elements give the performers room to flesh out their characters’ personalities and guide us through the story of a lost evening. Pasek and Paul could have recreated the golden oldies, but then the musical would have not stayed true to the movie, which is a look back through the hazy glasses of nostalgia. Imagine if you will, Biloxi Blues and China Beach made into a musical. In a few scenes the boys’ chauvinism is hauntingly real, but this musical is not a sharp study in contrast; it’s more elusive, concentrating on the hues between learned recklessness and purposed hurt.
Dogfight, in the Marine sense, is the worst possible reason to make a date, worse than a Craig’s List anonymous encounter, a Tinder hookup at a punk rock vegan juice bar, or a mile-high experience on a Southwest airlines prop plane to Marfa, Texas. The three Bs – Birdlace (played by Max Artsis), Bernstein (Danny Walker) and Boland (Ryan Monaghan) – are joined at the hip through boot camp, ready to fire off as many M16s in the jungle as possible and train the poor unfortunate souls evading communism for JFK, their commander in chief. The underlying truth is, they don’t like each other and wouldn’t consider having a beer together if they met on the street, but guns and glory have birthed the Bs.
Their first mission is to find the ugliest date possible, and the winner takes the money pot. There are rules, but Boland breaks one by hiring a Tenderloin prostitute named Marcy. Marcy has the extraordinary advantage, once her custom-made dentures are plucked from her jaw, of having only one top incisor. She’s got legs that go into next century, the ungirdled stomach pooch of not giving a damn, sagging breasts missile-shaped by the bizarre support garments of the time, and big strawberry blonde hair in tall enough ratio to compete with her walking sticks. The delightful Jessica Tidd from Stumptown Stages and Post5 gets the audience in an uproar as the business-minded Marcy: “I gotta get a full day’s work in before Perry Mason.” Tidd is a chameleon, and her timing and physical comedy provide one of the strengths of the production. Artis, as our sometime hero, Eddie Birdlace, has the posture, veins and slight overbrow of an all-American, apple-pie, jock frat-boy career military man. Artis’s tough guy acting has a thin veneer and is true to the type: He comes unhinged in violent red-outs, which hint that his childhood in Buffalo wasn’t white picket fences and tossing the ball with Dad. Artis’s acting is a good complement to Barbara Marie’s Rose. Much of Dogfight hinges upon the strength of Marie’s performance, and her character is the most fleshed-out and mature of the cast. Marie’s sweet golden pipes and sometimes stumbling portrayal of a novice woman are endearing and natural. She works with her mom in a cafe, but in her other life has stacked up a pile of Odetta, Guthrie and Seeger vinyl that she studies every day. She’s growing her hair out, and once it’s reached the accepted length, maybe she can perform at the Hungry I or some other beatnik hang out. Birdlace picks her up with his honey-tongued advances, because she’s a Mama Cass, not a Michelle Philips-figured girl. On the way to the dogfight, Birdlace starts to cave in: she’s an unusual and sweet girl. There’s more to her than meets his eye.
Under director Paul Angelo’s detailed hand (musical direction is by Eric Nordin), one of the best scenes is the dogfight itself. The cast floats in and out of dialogue to musical numbers with ease; a military lineup becomes a good choreographed reference to a Viennese waltz at a go-go club. The party is in a cool R&B club: Salim Sanchez plays the Solomon Burke lounge singer with a process wig to compete with the best. Sanchez plays multiple roles (transvestite, tattoo artist, man on the bus) throughout the play, and in his vignettes, he brings a few good laughs to ease up the tension of the 3 B’s freight-train misogyny. Jessica Tidd’s mono-toothed Marcy wins the bet and a bunch of money, but after Boland insults her and all of her gendered kind, Rose discovers why Birdlace asked her out.
Over the course of the night, Birdlace must face himself and his fears, uncovering his vulnerability as Rose awakens his long closed-off feelings.
They will, of course, eventually make amends, learning from each other how complex a person can be and confronting the social stereotypes that will soon be challenged in a counterculture quicksand. Part of what makes Dogfight work is that we know Birdlace is naïve and he’ll come back a Vietnam vet – a stranger in a strange land of protest, drugs, sex, and rock and roll. His grey flannel suit will be traded in for a Technicolor coat of living nightmares called flashbacks. Angelo’s scene of being in the shit, is a well-painted canvas that captures the chaos when Semper Fi belongs more to the dead than the living. As the only B to make it home, Birdlace lands back on U.S. soil, and in a clever touch, Drammy award-winning guitarist Kyle Smith, pulls out an electric: the times have been a-changing.
Dogfight is a pretty funny, well-staged look the bumpy road to love, mixing awkward, quirky kids coming into their own skins and belting out some good tunes.
Staged!’s Dogfight continues at CoHo Theatre through Sunday, November 29. Schedule and ticket information here.