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The Vietnamization Of New Jersey

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

It's sometimes best that dusty trunks remain packed away. Their contents are often forgotten (or abandoned) for a reason, even in the case of our more celebrated playwrights - Christopher Durang, for example, who's being represented at the Beckett Theatre by a 30-year-old comedy called The Vietnamization of New Jersey. It hasn't been seen much in the last three decades, and not without reason. This play, despite eerie similarities it draws between the Vietnam and Iraq wars, is most notable for demonstrating just how far its author's comic and dramatic sensibilities have evolved.

That's not to say you can't detect in it the seeds of his later works, dizzy but grounded plays who spin a serious idea so rapidly through any given situation that the resulting comedy threatens to redefine centrifugal force. Even at this point in his career, Durang was expert at stacking absurdity on absurdity to create a stepladder to profundity - this play's two (give or take) blind young adults, a sassy black maid played by a man, and undercurrent of Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals as a vehicle for racial awareness suggest a tie-dyed tapestry representing a generation on the electric razor's edge.

Old ideas crazily colliding with new this way is territory Durang has long explored more creatively than anyone. But Vietnamization never completely defuses the feeling that it was written by a young man who still had something to prove. It suffers from a blaring obviousness that cripples its ability to make its points about American myopia in wartime - beginning in the very first scene, set around the Bartholomew breakfast table, characters make it painfully clear that not only will they wear their social consciousness on their sleeves, but they'll announce them to the world.

The mother, Ozzie Ann (Blanche Baker), has misplaced priorities as far as appropriateness of manners is concerned, and what she'll accept and what she won't can often be bizarre. The father, Harry (Frank Deal), would rather close his eyes and his ears to the upcoming generation he's unable to communicate with. The representative of that generation, the high-school delinquent Et (Nick Westrate), is the embodiment of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and untapped wisdom who sees in his elders the contradictions they don't recognize and need to be informed of time and time again.

Et's narrations of the play's blatant symbolism, which jogs the gamut from kitchen-sink drama (as in, "everything and the") to '70s sitcom, is contrasted by the even more clearly expressed words of the maid, Hazel (James Duane Polk). In addition to keeping the family on track, she keeps count of their wittiest bon mots and occasionally interrupts the later years of the action (which runs from 1967 to about 1977) with "Bicentennial Minutes" relating the little-known tidbits of trivia constituting the "real" history of our country.

Future versions, however, might have to be rewritten if the elder Bartholomew son gets his way. David (Corey Sullivan) suddenly returns from the Vietnam war not only blinded but with a Vietnamese wife named Liat (Susan Gross), also blind, whom David insists his family make amends to for all the indignities her country suffered at the hands (and weapons) of the American military. Their attempts to do just that set them on the path to understanding all too well what Liat must have experienced - it doesn't take long for their own way of life to shift into one reminiscent of Vietnam before, during, and after American forces left their indelible bootprints.

But the ensuing quasi-hilarity feels considerably less than effortless, with hastily sketched characters that don't exist much beyond their functional natures and don't do enough to allow American self-centeredness to necessarily take center stage. Robert Saxner's flabby direction doesn't help; anyone staging Durang - especially early, loose Durang like this - must instinctively know when to hold the reins and when to let them go, and Saxner's choices frequently seem the opposite of the ideal course. Baker, apparently trying to channel master Durang interpreter Kristine Nielsen, is an inherently competent actress in a role requiring the kind of deft, detailed, and precise comedienne she simply is not; Westrate is only an intermittently believable greaser-come-lately; and Gross is a funny, if too tentative, Liat.

The best of the bunch is Polk, who finds just the right mixture of size, offensiveness, and convention-shattering to score as a Durang hero (or is it heroine?). Though embodying every stereotype imaginable, he nonetheless makes Hazel the most real of the show's characters, as well as its curious moral conscience. When events far too complicated to describe here end in Hazel's being called a tar baby, Polk's astonishing (and uproarious) expression of shock, pain, and defiled sweetness encapsulates not only minorities' struggles to be accepted in White America, but for White America to better accept itself and solve its own problems before meddling in the problems of others.

The moment rings so clear you can easily understand and sympathize with Durang's goal with The Vietnamization of New Jersey and the reason Alchemy Theatre Company has exhumed this play now. But it works because of its (relatively) subtlety, a quality that - in this script or this production - is not otherwise out in force.

The Vietnamization Of New Jersey
Through January 28
Beckett Theater, 410 West 42nd between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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