Dogfight Review: Deliberately Cruel, Sweetly Nostalgic
“He was young, abstract, and therefore cruel,” Dostoevsky writes of a character in Crime and Punishment.
“Some things are not forgivable: Deliberate cruelty
is not forgivable,” Blanche says in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Yet deliberate cruelty is the premise of “Dogfight,” a new musical based on the odd little 1991 movie starring Lili Taylor and River Phoenix, and written by screenwriter Bob Comfort, who had been a marine and was clearly inspired by a real-life common practice among the “jarheads” of the Mad Men era.
It is 1963, and a group of young marines are temporarily in port at San Francisco, leaving the next morning for overseas. They hold a dogfight, which is what they call a party in which they compete to find the ugliest woman to be their dates, with pooled prize money going to the marine who picked the “winner.”
Eddie, a scrappy half-orphan from Buffalo, finds Rose in the coffee shop owned by her mother, earnestly learning to play folk music on a guitar. He charms her into coming to the party.
She eventually discovers its purpose, and in fury tells him off. He pursues her and spends the rest of the evening making it up to her, by taking her out to dinner, walking, talking, romancing.
Like the movie, the musical is thus split in half – the cruel first act, the sweet second act.
Well-staged and wonderfully acted by a 11-member cast that includes stand-out Lindsay Mendez as Rose, “Dogfight” as a musical deserves attention. So much veteran talent is involved in creating this stage adaptation, and it shows – swift, competent direction by Joe Montello (Wicked, Assassins), well-integrated, muscular choreography by Chris Gattelli (Newsies), an interesting two-tiered set and apt costume design by David Zinn (Seminar, Other Desert Cities). But it is the newcomers that have generated the most excitement for this chamber musical: composer-lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and librettist Peter Duchan. And it is their work with which I have the most problems, especially Duchan’s whose book tries to be faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the film.
But there are aspects of the movie that give it resonance beyond what is really possible to replicate on the stage. River Phoenix, who at 21 was the same age as his character, had already performed in some dozen films, playing sensitive boys and young men. No matter how brutal his character Eddie’s treatment of Rose, the audience could just assume (perhaps without even realizing it) that there was a sensitive person underneath, waiting to emerge – as indeed he does. Such an abrupt transformation might seem unlikely in real life, but this was River Phoenix!
It is impossible watching the movie now not to be struck by its being one of the last River Phoenix ever made; he died just two years later, at the age of 23.
The stage Eddie, Derek Klena, holds no such familiarity for theatergoers. He is a handsome young man with a pleasing voice, whose claims to fame are a recent role in the revival of “Carrie” (!), and having made it to Hollywood Week in season 9 of “American Idol.” It is not his fault that his character’s transition is less credible – that he is more believable as the callow and cocky marine.
By contrast, Lindsay Mendez, who was most recently in “Godspell” and before that performed in “Grease” and as Sherie Rene Scott’s backup singer in “Everyday Rapture,” is a completely believable Rose. A lonely, lovely girl, Rose loves folk music and earnestly supports the civil rights movement. Her only flaw (as was Lili Taylor’s in the movie) is bad taste in hairstyles. She is neither dog nor dogmatic — too smart and too tough to be anybody’s victim, too compassionate to hold a grudge. Thanks to her performance, there are touchingly awkward moments with Klena, and something approaching the charm of a movie like “Marty.” But, weirdly, I couldn’t help resenting the musical’s creators subjecting Rose to the indignities of the plot. It felt manipulative.
Filmmaker Nancy Savoca made some subtle, savvy choices in the movie to undercut the cruelty besides just the casting of River Phoenix. She also cast Holly Near as Rose’s mother. Near began her career as a child actor on TV, and was cast on Broadway in “Hair,” but by the time the film “Dogfight” was made, she was well-known among anti-war and other movement activists as a protest singer. It is as if the filmmaker was reassuring those filmgoers who would most likely object to ambiguous signs of sexism or jingoism.
What the musicals creators have done to make sure they are not misinterpreted is made even more obvious the themes of the impending end of an era of innocence and ignorance.
The marines are going to Vietnam, a place that means very little to them in 1963, but a lot to audiences in 1991 and 2012. Now, however, the musical takes place explicitly (as printed in the program) on November 21, 1963 – not just the day before the marines are shipped off, but the day before John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
At Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street
Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; book by Peter Duchan, based on the Warner Brothers film and screenplay by Bob Comfort; directed by Joe Mantello; choreography by Christopher Gattelli; sets and costumes by David Zinn; lighting by Paul Gallo; sound by Fitz Patton; hair design by Joshua Marquette; music director, Bryan Perri; orchestrations by Michael Starobin
Cast: Annaleigh Ashford (Marcy), Becca Ayers (Mama), Nick Blaemire (Bernstein), Steven Booth (Gibbs), Dierdre Friel (Chippy), Adam Halpin (Stevens), F. Michael Haynie (Fector), Derek Klena (Eddie Birdlace), Lindsay Mendez (Rose Fenny), James Moye (Lounge Singer) and Josh Segarra (Boland).
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission.
Dogfight is scheduled to run through August 19.
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