Review from Backstage West by Les Spindell on July 7, 2004.
As long as wars are waged for questionable reasons, with moral chaos driving ostensibly decent human beings to acts of savagery, David Rabe’s 1976 Vietnam-era drama will have a stunning resonance. In a production brimming with intelligence and nail-biting tension, director Leon Shanglebee leads a remarkable ensemble cast in illuminating Rabe’s brilliant anti-war parable.
The title derives from military slang for the plight of a paratrooper whose parachute fails to open. The characters warble Stephen Foster’s classic song “Beautiful Dreamer” as an ironic refrain, with the word “streamer” substituted for “dreamer,” to denote people trying to make peace with their tragic fates. In the barracks at a U.S. Army base in Washington, D.C., young soldiers await their orders to be sent to the battlefield. The recruits attempt to bond, but differences of social class, race, and sexual orientation result in friction. The omnipresent fear of being sent into the treacherous jungle hellhole adds to the edginess of their interactions. The irrationality of homophobia becomes a pivotal issue – a metaphorical counterpart to the insanity of war, with a violent death the inevitable outcome.
Without exception, the actors interpret their roles impeccably, bringing out the multilayered nuances in Rabe’s literate text. Heading the list of indelible portrayals is Romel Jamison’s hair-raising characterization of the African-American Carlyle, a tough-talking, chip-on-his-shoulder blowhard – yet underneath his intimidating street-punk exterior is a terrified little boy. Trent Hopkins expertly plays the drunken Sgt. Rooney, who likewise uses bullying tactics to mask fear and despair. The superb James Coyne plays the unashamedly gay Richie, the story’s catalyst, stoking the fires of the smoldering tensions without realizing what he is doing. As the possibly closeted Billy, Christian Levatino brilliantly epitomizes the pent-up emotions that are the core of Rabe’s themes. Mancini Graves excels as Roger, the voice of reason who makes attempts to keep peace among the comrades. Michael Melvin has compelling moments as Rooney’s buddy Cokes, a sergeant who’s in denial about his terminal illness.
Thanks to Shanglebee’s masterful staging and these sterling performances, one leaves the theatre shaken by Rabe’s harrowing yet heartbreaking vision of the apocalypse forever. At the Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7p.m.; thru Aug 1.
Review in L.A. Weekly by Martín Hernández on June 17, 2004.
*LA Weekly Recommended*
The dehumanizing consequences of racism, homophobia and militarism make for a volatile combination in David Rabe’s 1976 Vietnam War–era play, a concoction on which director Leon Shanglebee grounds his excellent staging and cast’s outstanding performances. Three disparate young paratroopers have formed a tentative bond at a Washington, D.C., army barracks in 1964: Richie (James Coyne), a privileged Manhattan sophisticate; Billy (the exceptional Christian Levatino), a bespectacled Wisconsin farm boy; and Roger (Mancini Graves), an impoverished Southern black. Their strengthening amity, however, is beset by Richie’s allusions to being queer and the appearance of Carlyle (the riveting Romel Jamison), an oppressed black soldier whom Roger grossly underestimates as “just a little fucked up in the head.” As two World War II and Korean vet sergeants, Michael Melvin and Trent Hopkins hilariously mine an underlying critique on all-male institutions’ disdain for homosexuality. The duo’s drunken camaraderie is their solace from the brutality of war but may also disguise a pre–“don’t ask, don’t tell” affection. Keith Disciullo’s authentic set design, especially the camouflage netting on the theater’s back wall, is to be applauded.