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Streamers

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Streamers
Hale Appleman, Brad Fleischer, J.D. Williams, Larry Clarke, and John Sharian.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Go ahead, throw around the "D" word. It's an appropriate, perhaps even accurate, description of David Rabe's 1976 play Streamers. After all, if a play set in a Virginia army barracks in 1965, and concerning a quartet of soldiers tussling with issues of class, race, and sexuality before shipping out to Vietnam isn't dated, what is? Hasn't our understanding of each of these topics progressed well beyond what any 32-year-old play could teach us - especially in the coinciding eras of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and President-Elect Barack Obama?

Perhaps. But the Roundabout Theatre Company's sleek and stirring revival of the play at the Laura Pels Theatre disarms most of these criticisms before they form in your head. Director Scott Ellis has wisely chosen to shy away from the "big-picture" angle, which in the original production must have been like treating the gaping wounds of the recently abandoned conflict with salt water. Instead, he focuses more intently, and to rewarding effect, on the human elements of the story, the fears, the hopes, and especially the prejudices that unite unite men in both war and peace.

The familiar issues arise from every side, undulating and overlapping as these men just out of boot camp cope with the impending terror of combat and of the other elemental components of America's melting pot. Billy (Brad Fleischer), a conservative, college-educated Wisconsin boy, is never sure what to make of the brittle Richie (Hale Appleman), a privileged Manhattan import with a loose tongue and dubious sexuality. Their roommate Roger (J.D. Williams) stands in stark contrast to the frequently visiting "transient from P company" Carlyle (Ato Essandoh), whose urban upbringing hasn't prepared him for the rigidly regimented military.

The white Billy and Richie do not inherently connect; nor do the black Roger and Carlyle. Their loyalties and outlooks fall along very different lines, making their backgrounds, their attitudes, and especially their actions the deciding factors in who relates best with whom. Billy and Roger relate because each is on track for a military career, and each takes his service seriously. Richie meshes with Carlyle not just because they're both outsiders who see the Army as an extended joke, but because they both act freely on their impulses. Richie longs for Billy, his body as well as his normalcy, despite everything about Richie running contrary to Billy's belief system.

Yes, the play creaks in examining the emotional burden of the wisecracking, self-loathing homosexual, but it compensates by being otherwise sufficiently steeped in recognizable realities. The condescending offense Billy takes to each of Richie's innuendos. The callousness of the drunkenly drifting sergeants, Rooney and Cokes (John Sharian and Larry Clarke), who oversee them and inculcate them into the real world, that gradually seeps down into the company. The atmosphere of violence that gently escalates from the supposed suicide attempt of another soldier (Martin, played by Charlie Hewson) into the climactic expurgation of the societal scions unwittingly conspiring to keep one of the men down.

Ellis never approaches the somewhat predictable it as a foregone conclusion. He builds the rage and the resentment gradually, letting cool disdain and indifference simmer until all they can do is boil over. The pace occasionally slackens, especially after Rooney and Cokes pay their first intrusive late-night visit near the end of Act I, but this is more a function of the play itself, which in its middle sections becomes startlingly uneventful. The actors, too, are less convincing in these scenes, which force them to be more reflective than combative; bunkside philosophizing does not always go over well here.

But when they're more actively involved in pursuing the truth about each other and themselves, they uncover smart and subtle shadings in men who don't always demand such qualities. Fleischer finds plenty of open-minded sensitivity in the forward-thinking Billy, spiritually uniting him with Richie in an unexpectedly clever way. Appleman is sometimes too forcefully arch as Richie, but always seems to be hiding real pain just beneath his oh-so-clever fašade. Williams is wonderfully understated as Roger, passionate and businesslike in equal quantities. Essandoh's evocation of Carlyle's hair-trigger personality is terrifically in tune with the character's uncertainty about all aspects of himself, which cross even the other characters' well-established barriers, and leads to some of the production's wildest and most profoundly unnerving moments.

The sense you get from all of them is perfectly in line with the title, which refers to what a skydiving soldier sees above him should his parachute fail to open. They're all victims of a culture in freefall, soon to collide with the cold, hard realizations that come when undeveloped trust wins out over common sense. The United States may have progressed in a great many ways since the early days of Vietnam and Civil Rights that Streamers documents, but the play remains a searing reminder of how far we all still have to go to avoid hitting the ground.


Streamers
Through January 11
Roundabout Theatre Company Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Roundabout Theatre Company