Amid all the macho military posturing, the singing and dancing, and the boys just wanting to have fun, there seems to be one salient point in the musical Dogfight: If the kids in the 1960s who were shipped to Vietnam, then processed into hamburger, were just a little kinder to women and less foul-mouthed, they wouldn’t have returned home with trembling hands, PTSD and people supposedly spitting on them.
That’s a harsh indictment of a musical that gets such a vibrant production, but come on: This is a show saddled with a mostly forgettable score and story that seems focused on hammering one point over and over and over: Young men, especially Marines, suck.
How much do they suck? They routinely stage “dogfights” before they are sent overseas to fight rich men’s wars. Those dogfights consist of ponying up cash into a pool, and then scouring the streets of San Francisco, looking for the ugliest possible women. The Marine who finds the ugliest wins the pot. These same guys, when a prostitute resists putting her battered, chapped pussy up for public auction just one more time for the evening, basically strong-arm her into a fucky-fucky sucky-sucky. It means that women are objectified and insulted, but all is forgiven because, hey, these guys are about to be shipped to a place very few Americans could even find on a map in order to keep the world safe for democracy.
To the credit of Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Peter Duchan, who based this show on the 1991 film, there is no soft-peddling of the ugliness—besides all the exuberant songs, of course. And one could argue that, in some fashion, this is a meditation on the night before America’s innocence was irrevocably lost (if one believes any nation built in large measure on the enslavement of black people, the conquering of Mexican people and the eradication of native people ever had any innocence to begin with), as the next day in Dallas, a youthful president would take a bullet to the head and his successor would soon pour tons of napalm on the fire in the jungle that the dead guy had started.
One could argue that, if there were enough in Dogfight to really care about. But there isn’t. A big part of that is the insipid girl-meets-dickhead-boy-falls-for-him-is-crushed-but-learns-so-much-about-herself-in-the-process-and-dickhead-boy-isn’t-really-that-much-of-a-dickhead story. Another part is the aforementioned score, a meager collection of ballads and crotch-grabbing big numbers designed to show us that these Marines are really tough and reallllllly horny. And then there are the cringe-inducing embellishments including an awful lounge singer and the lamest Native American caricature this side of F-Troop. And let’s not even mention the acoustic guitar with the built-in EQ. . . .
What’s really disturbing is all this terrific talent wasted in such a soulless trough. The 12-person cast assembled by director Matthew McCray is mostly excellent, as is the four-person band, Angeline Mirenda’s choreography is lively, and Christopher Scott Murillo does wonders with the set. But that story . . . ugh.
It’s Nov. 21, 1963, and it’s the last night on American soil for a small group of Marines led by three guys with last names that start with a B: Birdlace (Andrew Puente), Boland (James McHale) and Bernstein (Jonathan Rosario). The next morning, they’ll be on a ship to Okinawa, and then on to Vietnam, but they’re not too worried, as they’re just advisers and have just finished 13 weeks of training, and they’ll train some locals to fend off the Commies and be back in five weeks.
For their last night, they embark on that time-honored young-male ritual: beer and tail. They want to pop Bernstein’s cherry so he can finally be a real man, but the first mission is to find the ugliest women possible to bring as dates to a party. Birdlace’s target is Rose (the very talented Ashley Arlene Nelson), a shy, lonely folk singer who works at a diner whose only unattractive qualities are that she is a shy, lonely folk singer who works at a diner. But unlike every other male in this play, Birdlace has a conscience and quickly realizes that his con on Rose is cheap and heartless; he spends the rest of the evening (the entire play takes place on apparently the longest night in the history of San Francisco) trying to make amends.
The play’s final scene nearly makes up for the mostly uninteresting fare that comes before. It’s powerful and emotive, and for the first time, we see clearly what one would hope this show is aiming at exploring: the sad, sobering reminder that the men and, increasingly, women who fight our wars are really nothing more than kids. Awkward, unformed and unseasoned, filled with piss and vinegar and even idealism, but who have no idea the horror they will experience and, if they return, bring back home. It’s enough to make anyone want to fight and fuck.
Dogfight at the Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 777-3033; www.chancetheater.com. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Through March 6. $40.