The Keegan Theatre in Washington and directors Christina A. Coakley and Michael Innocenti have staged a gentle but moving production of the musical Dogfight in its beautifully renovated space, centering on a luminous performance by Isabelle Smelkinson.
Composers and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – whose most recent work, Dear Evan Hansen, is headed to New York after its successful run at Arena Stage – created Dogfight in 2012, based on a 1991 movie that starred River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. Peter Duchan’s book closely follows Bob Comfort’s screenplay, covering one night in San Francisco (as it happens, Nov. 21, 1963) and bracketing scenes set in 1967.
Eddie Birdlace (Tiziano D’Affuso), a young Marine, and his buddies Boland (Harrison Smith) and Bernstein (David Landstrom) are shipping out to Okinawa, and then Vietnam, in the morning. They decide to celebrate their last night of freedom by setting up a “dogfight”: each man attending the event pays into a pot and then finds the ugliest woman he can to be his date. The man with the least appealing date, in the eyes of the other men, wins the prize money.
Then Birdlace meets Rose (Smelkinson), an aspiring folksinger who works in her mother’s diner. She’s pudgy, socially awkward, and has political views far different from his, all of which would make her seem a perfect victim. During the night, Birdlace begins to notice the underlying cruelty he finds in the camaraderie of his Marine friends: they stick together at any cost and care nothing about anyone outside their group. (A scene involving threatened violence against a prostitute brings this point home directly.)
Although the plot follows Birdlace’s journey, Rose seizes the attention in this production. D’Affuso ably depicts a boy who matures into a man, but he stays comparatively reserved throughout. Smelkinson plays the emotions that crash into each other: wariness, giddiness, determination, self-possession, and ultimately a willingness to be vulnerable.