In Nancy Savoca's 1991 film "Dogfight" (starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor), a group of young marines are about to deploy to Vietnam the day before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But first, they set out for a night of "boys-will-be-boys" debauchery, and agree to compete among themselves to bring the ugliest date to a party later in the evening. The consequences of their cruel behavior are explored through the rest of the film, which in 2012 debuted as a stage musical adapted from Bob Comfort's screenplay. The local premiere of "Dogfight, the Musical" is being presented at JCC CenterStage through Sunday, July 29.
CenterStage Artistic Director Ralph Meranto emphasized on opening night that "Dogfight" was a deliberate choice for the CenterStage'sSummerStage production (SummerStage is an opportunity for high school and college aged actors to participate in a professional production). Meranto stated that he had looked forward for an opportunity to stage the production with young actors who are the same age as the characters they are portraying.
A note accompanying the program explains that the play could provide an important perspective related to the #MeToo movement; staging the production with age-appropriate actors is a thoughtful way to contextualize #MeToo for the era it was set in. While the audience might want to chastise the characters for their behavior, the actors' youth reminds us that they were hardly older than children and they were being sent to die in a violent war.
The Vietnam War is a looming menace throughout the story, but the real villain is toxic masculinity -- disguised as brotherhood and camaraderie -- that is portrayed with a loathsome and sickening success by CJ Garbin (in the lead role of Eddie Birdlace), Jack Bausch (Bernstein), and Reese Holahan (Boland).
The original Off-Broadway production starred Lindsay Mendez in the role of Rose (here played by Sydney Howard), the musically gifted, thoughtful, and socially awkward waitress who is victimized by the young marines' prank. Quirky and endearing, Howard's portrayal of Rose is imbued with an emotional range much broader than that of the other characters.
Rose starts the show as a shy young woman who is asked to attend a dance by Garbin's Birdlace. When she declines, Birdlace asks again. And again. And yet again, varying between cajoling and bullying until she accepts his invitation. We are already aware that the dance is what the marines are calling a 'dogfight': a bet between them to see who can bring the ugliest date. As Rose gets ready to leave, we learn that the dance is actually her first date. As Birdlace and his buddies realize he's feeling guilt, and as Rose leads him through those emotions, the play oscillates between romance and drama, but it becomes obvious who the real dogs of the story are.
Howard and Garbin share an onstage chemistry that make Rose's excitement, forgiveness, and passion believable and endearing to watch, even though it's frustrating to witness a young woman acquiesce to the desires of someone who's treated her poorly.
The Off-Broadway musical features music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (now known for their award-winning work on "La La Land" and "Dear Evan Hansen"). With a thematic use of "do-do-dit-dos," the music tries desperately to recall the 1960s, but falls slightly short. Pasek and Paul's score feels more contemporary than the setting of the show, with the songs reminding me more of "The Last Five Years" than of "Hello Dolly" or "Fiddler on the Roof" (both released in the year after the musical takes place).
Garban and Holahan have flawless voices that are almost too good at times. With each note sung perfectly, there's little room left for raw emotion that might have enhanced some of the songs, particularly "Come Back." Halohan's Boland sings less than the others, but emotes not only with his body but also with his voice, singing as athletically and aggressively as he dances and moves on stage.
The success of the script relies upon the viewer's ability to emotionally and psychologically place themselves in a time before Kennedy's assassination. Approaching the language, ableism, racism, and toxic masculinity of the marines with a modern mindset may leave the viewer with a sour perception of the production, no matter how strong the performances are. It's incumbent upon the viewer to take into account the ignorance, privilege, and naïveté that openly plagued America leading into the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
Though our language may have evolved, the scores of movies in our culture that follow a similar plot and character arc indicate that we have more work to do. There's this enduring "romantic" cliché of a man bullying a woman into a romantic relationship (where she ends up doing the majority of the emotional labor necessary for both the man and their relationship to be successful). The young actors in this production deserve to be on stage portraying emotionally dynamic, evolving characters, and they are more than capable of living up to that challenge.