Medal of Honor Rag
But is it ever possible for a play to be less than the sum of its parts? Every major player listed here has done amazing things in the past but, apparently, none of them were wearing their lucky charms for this production.
Most of the problem with Medal of Honor Rag seems to be that the psychiatrist (Tyler Vickers) is simply too kind and supportive of the tormented Vietnam war veteran, played by Bryan Keith. This "enlightened" approach robs the play of crucial tension, which can scarcely be taken up by Keith Borzillo, who appears only briefly as a somewhat fearsome military guard at the Veterans Administration hospital where the scene is set. As directed by David Wassilak, Mr. Keith's eventual recovery seems assured, at least until Mr. Borzillo pops in again. So there's no real need for us to worry about the vet, as this latest psychiatrist runs him through his paces. As a result, this is a drama with no real tension. Mr. Vickers (as the new doctor) has always been outstanding in the past, and director Wassilak has shown tremendous insight in his shows. But Mr. Keith, as the psychologically scarred vet, has no enigmatic authority figure to push against here. And the show flails about, when it should be smoldering.
There are well-staged moments of humor, and the occasional artful "snap" where characters fall into excellent stage pictures, as if by accident. And Mr. Keith is very interesting to watch, with a wry sense of resignation. But the greatest performance of the evening (by far) is turned in by the late Lyndon Baines Johnson, in an audio tape recording from the 1960s. Everything stops for a minute or two as we listen to the larger-than-life Texas Democrat's shaky voice, before he hands out a stack of medals in a solemn ceremony. Johnson, who reached amazing political heights introducing the "Great Society," ended his service in shame, presiding over a nation torn by antiwar protests. In his tape-recorded speech he becomes an mighty Ozymandias, crumbling before us. It sets a mighty high bar for the two young men on stage.
The opening ten minutes of Tom Cole's script play well, with Pinteresque dialog, but later there's something hollow about the way Mr. Keith and Mr. Vickers reveal their characters' darkest secrets. Mr. Keith is given a fantastic verbal image about sweeping the charred remains of his compatriots down the street in an imaginary victory parade. But, otherwise, it's a stunningly bland inventory of personal tragedieson both sides. There's a good, provocative twist involving medals and guilt, but, in this case, it's just one lonely flag planted on a very lowly hill.
Through February 15, 2009 at the Gaslight Theater, 360 North Boyle. For more information, call (314) 458-2978, or visit them online at www.stlas.org.
* Denotes member, Actors' Equity