Theater: Courageous effort

‘Dogfight’ explores romance and war

by Charles Brousse

It’s 1967. A pair of previously unacquainted American war veterans—one from Korea, the other from Vietnam—are seated next to each other as their Greyhound bus speeds through the night toward San Francisco. After a few brief verbal exchanges about their lives since leaving military service, the Vietnam vet’s mind drifts back to November 21, 1963, when he made this same journey in a military bus full of young Marines fresh out of basic training. They were a rowdy bunch, excited by the adventures they hoped to have during their 24-hour shore liberty before being shipped off to Okinawa, the first leg of a transfer to the war zone.

For this particular Marine, it was the beginning of a life-changing transformation. The creative team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (jointly credited for music and lyrics), working with a script adapted by Peter Duchan from an obscure 1971 movie by the same name, have pieced together some fragments of that brief visit and its aftermath in Dogfight, the opening production of San Francisco Playhouse’s new season.

Musicals, even the standard, well-tested classics, are never easy projects. With their mix of  dancing, singing, instrumental accompaniment, large casts of multi-talented performers and frequent need for special effects, they have a plethora of moving parts that may malfunction. Small wonder, then, that the majority are designed to provide light, “feel good” entertainment,  rather than to explore serious issues.

Dogfight has a somewhat different agenda, but it takes awhile to figure out what it is. My initial impression was that we were being led one more time up the familiar path of a “boy meets girl, boy screws up and loses girl, boy makes amends and gets girl” love story. Jeffrey Brian Adams brings energy, sensitivity and a sweet singing voice to the role of the show’s protagonist, Eddie Birdlace. Like his comrades, who are itching to “score” sexually before departing, Eddie wants to make the most out of his brief reprieve from military discipline, but he’s also skeptical about  their plan to pitch in $50 each to finance a “dogfight” party that evening, so described because the one who brings the ugliest date will be awarded a cash prize. Nevertheless, he agrees to join and, after an unproductive search, cajoles an incredibly naïve, self-deprecating café waitress named Rose (Caitlin Brooke, who may be a trifle overweight, but is blessed with a warm personality and—most important in such circumstances—the vocal strength to handle the musical’s demanding score).

At the party, things don’t go well for Eddie and Rose. When Rose learns about the gathering’s cruel purpose from another female guest while in the ladies room, she curses Eddie for his deception and blames herself for being taken in. Filled with the kind of genuine remorse that he has probably never experienced before, Eddie persuades Rose to have dinner with him, one thing leads to another and eventually these two lost souls express their blossoming affection in a tender bedroom scene.

There the fantasy of romance abruptly ends and the brutal reality of war takes its place. The proud Marines who volunteered to fight for their country in Vietnam quickly lose their swagger  as the heat, the hidden enemy and the increasing realization that the folks back home don’t support them, take their toll. One by one they fall—to bullets, bombs and the lure of the opium dens. The Eddie Birdlace who returns to San Francisco by Greyhound to try to find Rose is a changed man.

As I said earlier, musicals have many moving parts. While Dogfight poses special problems because of its content, director Bill English manages to get most of them moving in sync, but not all. Nevertheless, a tip of the hat for having the courage to try.

NOW PLAYING: Dogfight runs through November 7 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.

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