In On the Town, three sailors hit the streets of Manhattan and wallow in the song, dance and romance of no more war. But that was 1944. Twenty years later came Dogfight.
Where those three sailors were bursting with joy and optimism, the three Marines in the Benj Pasek-Justin Paul-Peter Duchan show now at the Cygnet Theatre are headed the other way – some place called Vietnam – and their passion is to shoot somebody.
First, though, there are rites of buddyhood to enjoy on their last night in San Francisco. Six of the guys each have put $50 in the pot. The winner taking all will be the one who turns up at an early-evening “party” with the ugliest date.
Of course this was years before political correctness, though good manners were in effect. I was involved with the military during that period and I never heard of any “dogfight” tradition. But then I didn’t spend much time with Marine recruits. So, well, maybe…
Duchan’s book is out to acknowledge the debasing crudities of military life, I suppose, to better emphasize the redeeming powers of love. But there’s many a wince along the way before the most loveable Marine realizes that the waitress he’s chosen isn’t ugly, just shy, a bit plain and very naïve.
Patrick Osteen uses the coiled strength and persuasive confidence of a born leader to establish this a guy worth watching as he wrestles with sentimental puzzles. And Caitie Grady deftly warms the girl to a soft glow as she matures right before our eyes. The very best moments of the show come in their gentle second-act duet, “First Date, Last Date,” possibly the most effective of the Pasek-Paul songs if not the most rousing (probably “We Three Bees” with his best buds) or wrenching (definitely the title song, in which the winning hooker describes the rules). If fact, the composers demonstrate a refreshing ability to make exactly the interesting song that suits the show’s needs and enriches the contrasts.
Somebody with considerable USMC knowledge has helped director Sean Murray get the look and feel of these Marines, even in their very specific period. The haircuts, the drill, the roughhousing and especially the uniforms are really near perfect, quite an accomplishment. (Costumer Jacinda Johnston-Fischer also gets their civvies right and nails the pre-hippie girls’ look with practiced ease.)
Murray steers the script through an atmosphere of sleaze that suggest the author is less interested in any common humanity and more anxious to establish a barbarity that his lovers can survive. Murray is OK with this but he also finds ways to ease the damage of crassness while keeping the general tone one of thrusting vitality. The flaws are the author’s.
Sean Fanning’s set is fascinating in its casual versatility. Possibly Chris Rynne could have made it do even more tricks as the action moves around San Francisco, but the effect – all except that moment on the Golden Gate Bridge – is delivered.
More might also have been expected from the six–piece orchestra, led by longtime Cygnet stalwart Terry O’Donnell. A pre-show successions of period hits – “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” etc. – set an odd tone.
The actors are a dandy bunch that move with loose-limbed exuberance through David Brannen’s choreography and sell their wares whatever their assignment of the moment. Sarah Errington plays a scathing, predatory hustler and deflates any good will in her vicinity. Debra Wanger has delicate moments as an anxious mother. And Mel Domingo is touching as a more worn-out whore.
The guys? Just a average bunch of new Marines abut to ship out and determined to get all the required rituals right. Later, when the shooting starts, the lights fade, the smoke pumps and the staging meshes their work to tell the bitter, wordless tale. Cleansed by fire, every one of them is precious, not just the ones who come back.
Continues in the Cygnet Theatre, Old Town, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 23, 2015.