theater (reviews)

review: dogfight

Dogfight

Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Book by Peter Duchan (based on the screenplay by Bob Comfort)
Directed by Joe Mantello
Featuring Annaleigh Ashford, Lindsay Mendez, Derek Klena
Second Stage Theatre, Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
July 16, 2012 — August 19, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
July 22, 2012

  • “You want to change the world Rose? Pick up a gun and start shooting. Shooting changes things real quick.”

(L-R) Lindsay Mendez, Derek Klena. Image by Joan Marcus.

Dogfight gives us a story of small town sensibilities in the big city, big political events looming on the global horizon, and two kids who meet skeevy and end up caring simply.  At Second Stage this new musical version of a movie I haven’t seen in part evokes an era I knew a bit as a child. A story with music of soldiers heading off in 1963 to a war in a country few people in the U.S. could locate on a map, within spitting distance of World War II (plot references to fathers being welcomed home by ticker tape parades) and youthful enthusiasm and ignorance of how the world was about to change.  There is more the story can tell us than is currently on stage in the second act’s anti-war context, but much of what is here in performance, in design, in energy, is quite fine.

There are several different stories being told on stage in this play in its current form.  Much is moving, and much of the music is terrific, and some of the stories fall a little flat. Designers give us disco and a diner and a bridge at night and several versions of exploring the streets of San Francisco. Sound by Fitz Patton provides sea gulls by the Bay and disco strobes and horrifying concussions of war. Set and costumes by David Zinn craft out of an intimate performance space layers and levels of play, and place us firmly in blue-collar mid-century both prior to and deeply within the Flower Power later 1960s. The first act gives us an energetic set up (military boys blowing off steam just before shipping out by finding girls to secretly ridicule, as a kind of twisted On The Town) and the second act shows a solider returning home to antiwar sentiments without sufficient historical context for those who didn’t live through the Viet Nam military as “consultant” to military chaos transformation to fully feel.

We begin and end the show with the stateside return of soldier Eddie Birdlace (Derek Klena) after he has spent some time “in country”.  In a twist on the bus ride in Horton Foote‘s A Trip to Bountiful (during which an elderly woman returning to her birthplace chatters with a friendly stranger), Viet Nam veteran Eddie is totally silent in response to his seat mate’s inquiries on this show opening ride to soon segues into Eddie’s history of several months (or perhaps few years) before. We soon land in late November 1963 (just before President Kennedy‘s assassination, a fact not referenced in the plotline as far as I recall), to the events that Eddie may have been recalling in his silent homecoming bus ride. Soldier buddies Bernstein (Nick Blaemire), Boland (Josh Segarra) and our Eddie blow off pre-ship out steam in 1963 San Francisco. We soon learn that they plan to spend their last night in town before leaving for Viet Nam by staging a military tradition — a dog fight.  They rent a hall, arrange for food and drink, and each go out to find the ugliest girls they can, who will be judged when brought to the arranged location to be spun around the dance floor. The premise: the girls don’t know they’re on a date for this purpose. And the girls they find are fascinating.  Eddie finds young feminist Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore diner worker Rose (Lindsay Mendez) who is a virgin, a bit plump, smart and funny,  lives and works with her mother (Becca Ayers).  Another soldier finds working girl Marcy (Annaleigh Ashford) who conspires to flout the “no hooker” rule in order to split the earnings — her clear, funny performance and disclosure of the dogfight charade to trusting Marcy sets up the themes of the rest of the show. The events of this set up play out, and the events of the war play out, and the resulting imbalance calls out for some tweaking of the book.

Will Eddie feel guilty? Will he face down his buddies who engage in a Shakespearean ruse to prevent Eddie from contacting Marcy before they ship out? And with the anger and frustration of the final night in town played out, what is left for the second act?  As it turns out, not enough is left, plotwise, to justify the adventure. Capturing the final moments of a soldier’s return to a world that has changed in his absence doesn’t ring true in the balance of the rest of the story. Yet while the second act feels a bit hollow, the music and production design and performances are terrific.  Plot tweaking and balancing may be in this show’s future.  In the meantime, Lindsay Mendez’s performance in particular is enchanting, and a number of ballads may have a life as romantic ballads — if the playbill had listed the songs by title (why is this so inconsistently done with musicals these days?) I might be able to call them out accurately by name.

© Martha Wade Steketee (July 30, 2012)

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