Memories and Mysteries of Vietnam Permeate "Last of the Boys;" World Premiere Drama by Steven Dietz Opens McCarter Season
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in the last line of The Great Gatsby. Eighty years later his words describe perfectly the plight of Steven Dietz' haunted souls in Last of the Boys, a drama about two Vietnam veterans, currently playing in its world premiere at McCarter's Berlind Theatre.
The time is "The present. (Such as it is.)" such as it is, indeed, since neither these two grizzled figures, nor the two female characters who enter this toxic world, an abandoned trailer park on a Super-Fund site in central California, can escape from memories and emotional scars of the Vietnam War.
In the shadow now of an ongoing war in Iraq and a national election that has focused with nothing less than obsession on the Vietnam War, Last of the Boys is bound to be seen as a "political" play, but it is not didactic. It provokes many questions and will ignite much debate, but it provides few answers. As the action weaves back and forth between the realism of the present and the surrealism of memory and imagination, one of the characters in the play even takes on the persona of the controversial Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, and more recently in the news as the author of In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam and the subject of an award-winning documentary film The Fog of War.
Amidst all the powerful historical-political resonance here, however, Last of the Boys is still ultimately about essential human issues: friendship and time, fathers and sons, trying to make connections, truth-telling, betrayal, and the vain struggle to escape the past and move on.
This McCarter production, under the intelligent and skillful direction of Emily Mann, brings Mr. Dietz' play to life with verve, humor and telling detail. Tom Wopat (TV and Broadway star) and Joseph Siravo (Johnny Soprano in The Sopranos, among many other screen and stage credits), two old pros at the top of their game, are perfectly cast in the title roles. Their interactions, verbal and visual, seem natural and effortless as they complement each other dynamically in depicting the comedy, the pain, and all the subtle exchanges that characterize this troubled relationship.
Last of the Boys is the story of four people who cannot escape the reverberations of Vietnam, even after more than 30 years: Ben (Mr. Siravo) and Jeeter (Mr. Wopat); Jeeter's latest girlfriend Salyer (Jenny Bacon), whose father left for the war before she was born in 1967 and never returned; and Lorraine (Deborah Hedwall), Sal's mother, who cannot get beyond the anger and hurt of having lost her young husband so many years earlier. A fifth character, named only The Young Soldier (Steven Boyer), appears sporadically throughout the evening in the realm of the surrealistic. He is McNamara's aide-de-camp, then later turns out apparently to be Salyer's father, missing in action at the age of nineteen.
Jeeter, "stuck" in the past, is an associate professor of humanities at the College of the Redwoods, teaching a course entitled "The Sixties," still dating coeds, following the Rolling Stones (been to more than 200 concerts) and attending "techno-shamanism workshops." Both men are in their mid-fifties. Ben is a carpenter, introverted, plagued by memories of Vietnam and his estranged, recently deceased father, who had a "change of heart" when he could no longer support the war or admire his former hero McNamara. "We become the people we need," Jeeter tells Ben, and Ben, at key points in the drama takes on the persona of Defense Secretary McNamara defending the U.S escalation of the war.
Salyer, who never knew her father, continues to revere his memory through her affinity for Vietnam veterans and the tattoos covering her body (hidden under layers of clothes) with names of the Vietnam dead and missing. Ms. Hedwall's Lorraine, who appears suddenly in search of her daughter, almost steals the show with her acerbic tongue and her outspoken willingness to clash with all three of the other characters. Angry, colorful and well-worn by life's travails, this character survives on determination and a vicious sense of humor, much enhanced by her sharp comic timing.
Mr. Dietz, Seattle-based playwright whose more than twenty plays including Fiction, which premiered at McCarter last year and recently played at the Roundabout Theatre in New York have been produced at regional theatres across the country and around the world, specializes in the kind of spirited dialogue and realistic, in-depth characterization that captivate the audience so powerfully here. Sudden shifts in perception, the disclosure of secrets, and surprising twists and turns in character and plot keep the audience thoroughly engaged with these characters and their struggles. There are occasional predictable moments, contrived dialogue and forced comedy that temporarily undermine credibility, but the high quality of the performances and production values prevails to make Last of the Boys an exhilarating and moving experience.
Miss Mann, author herself of a searing Vietnam War drama, Still Life, 25 years ago, moves this play along at a brisk pace, keeps the sudden shifts between realism and surrealism clear, brings out rich complexities in the interactions among these characters and focuses the action sharply at the most critical moments.
The eye-catching, painstakingly detailed set by Eugene Lee, with lighting by Jeff Croiter and sound design by Rob Millburn and Michael Bodeen, vividly creates this world in both its present eccentric squalor and its surrealistic leaps into the past.
"Only the dead have seen the end of war," Plato wrote 2400 years ago. As Last of the Boys so poignantly reminds us, the Vietnam War lives on, not just in the daily news media and the current election campaign, but in the lives of so many who were indelibly affected in so many different ways. And we have hardly even begun to tally the repercussions of Iraq.
Last of the Boys will run through October 17 at McCarter's Berlind Theatre. For show times, reservations and further information call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.