Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Last of the Boys:
Haunted by Ghosts of the War in Vietnam

Joseph Siravo and Tom Wopat
A dense, sometimes surreal play filled with metaphor and more relevant to the major issue of the current national election than most of what is being headlined in the news, the world premiere production of Steven Dietz's incendiary Last of the Boys is lighting a fire on the stage of Princeton's McCarter Theatre.

Last of the Boys is of such current importance and interest that it is difficult to evaluate its dramaturgy and literary quality. However, at this particular moment in the history of our republic, its overarching relevancy combined with its intelligence, balance, and ability to engage our hearts and minds make it the most important, must-see play of the season.

Ben, a ‘Nam vet in his fifties, lives in a rusted out trailer in an abandoned California trailer park. The area is surrounded with sandbags which, given the arid nature of the area, probably are among the ghosts of Vietnam which haunt him. Because the ground has been polluted by toxic waste, the chemical company responsible has bought up all of the town's property, enriching its former owners and occupants. Only Ben stubbornly remains. We are told that Ben makes his living as a handyman (for whom?), and he certainly isn't high maintenance. Given the metaphors that abound here, it can be concluded that Ben is as unable to leave whatever the consequences of his staying as he is to lay to rest the specter of Vietnam.

Another vet is on the scene. As he does every summer, Ben's Vietnam compatriot Jeeter is visiting his buddy of more than thirty years standing. Jeeter appears to be an aging hippie/groupie. He is in the midst of following a Rolling Stones tour. At Stones concerts, he waves a sign bearing the inscription, "JUST STOP". Actually, Jeeter teaches a course about the sixties at a small, no-name California college. Jeeter is accompanied by Salyer, a thirty-five year old newly acquired girlfriend whom Jeeter wants to marry. Not far behind is Lorraine, Salyer's slatternly mother who means to take her daughter home.

This is not a typical visit. Jeeter has just attended the funeral of Ben's father despite having known him only three days, and is disturbed by Ben's failure to have done so. He has brought the American flag which covered Ben's father's coffin and other personal items.

The father had been an army officer and an aide to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Ben, proud of his father's proximity to a man of such importance, became an idolater of the flawed and deeply disturbed McNamara. During the Vietnam War, his father became disillusioned with McNamara. Not so Ben. This is the root cause of Ben's estrangement from his father. (McNamara later came to blame himself for causing the senseless deaths of tens of thousands of American GIs and Vietnamese civilians by purveying falsehoods in order to pursue policies which he "knew" to be fruitless.)

There is much more to Dietz's story. This includes obsession, schizophrenia, troubling secrets from the past, the betrayal of trust and friendship, and the ghostly presence of a young soldier whose presence binds threads of the play together. There is likely too much for any one play to tidily contain. Certainly, we know far too many details of Jeeter's hi-jinks and memories of '60s rock musicians. As entertaining as they may be to those coming of age at the time, other audience members (older and younger) are unlikely to be engaged by Jeeter's memories. Additionally, they shift too much focus away from the principal protagonist Ben. As someone who saw an unknown, new to New York, Bob Dylan more than once when he appeared as the opening act at Gerdes Folk City in Greenwich Village, I can assure Mr. Dietz that his mumbling early appearances gave few listeners any hint of the greatness that was to come.

During recent weeks, disturbing intelligence estimates concerning prospects for the future of Iraq (and the failure to disclose these estimates earlier) have become part of the public discourse. Seymour Hersh, who made his mark with Vietnamese war disclosures, is reliving his glory days in his unbridled attacks on the policies of the Bush Administration in which he concludes that we have already lost the battle for Iraq. Actually, current intelligence assessments are not nearly as dire, but they are not encouraging either. Administration supporters contend that the civil war in Vietnam cannot be compared to the dangers posed by the world wide terrorist war which Islamic extremists have thrust upon us. Uncannily, it is these red hot, paramount election issues which Last of the Boys(initiated by Dietz in 2002) places before us today.

When I said that Steven Dietz's play has balance, I did not mean to say that it does not take a firm position. It certainly does, and it will not fail to rouse and cosset liberal viewers. In one of Dietz's more facile, stroke the comfortable, suburban liberal audience lines, he has Lorraine (who is otherwise bitter and refuses to accept the penance of what she logically perceives of as McNamara's self serving mea culpas) say, "God, I wish I was (a Republican). I've tried for years. But something always got in the way - tolerance, compassion, human decency." (Laughter and applause).

However, Dietz is unfair to himself when he yields to such easy demagoguery. His play is written more in sorrow than anger; it is compassionate and not full of hate. Dietz presents facts and figures to support his dreadful assessment of our debacle in Vietnam. He does raise issues which encourage us to see parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. However, when not reaching for the easy laugh, Dietz does not ridicule those who would disagree. More importantly, Dietz sets the table for reasoned discussion and analysis.

McCarter artistic director Emily Mann has directed with a passion and energy to match Dietz's words. Nothing small scale here. There is a large detailed, brightly lit set by Eugene Lee which manages to be realistic and surrealistic simultaneously. Although her staging is emphatic, Mann does not sacrifice the mysterious, other worldly quality which is part and parcel of the script. Not everything feels of a piece, but that is more a difficulty arising from the ambitious script than it is of the direction. It is exhilarating to see Mann swinging for the seats.

Costumes by David Murin are apt. The dress for Salyer has special requirements dictated by the script and its design is extremely clever.

Joseph Siravo has the pivotal, difficult role of Ben. Siravo performs solidly, successfully uniting the gruffness of Ben's everyday persona with his haunted, obsessed private side believably.

Jenny Bacon is a fine Salyer. She plays down the eccentricities of an overly eccentric character. Deborah Hedwall as Lorraine and Steven Boyer as The Young Soldier lend solid support.

Tom Wopat as Jeeter smoothly conveys the ingratiating side of Jeeter, projecting just the right amount of edge to allow us to see that he is a selfish not so good old boy. He makes a layered, nuanced performance look easy.

Those who had the pleasure of seeing Dietz's Fiction (spring, 2003 at the McCarter; summer, 2004 at the Roundabout in Manhattan) know that Dietz is a very skilled writer with a gift for sharp dialogue and provocative situations. In Last of the Boys, he seeks to go beyond being an entertainer. He succeeds in that this play is provocative and intellectually engrossing. It is also overstuffed and messy. However, with pruning and more consistency in its characterizations, Last of the Boys may well prove to be a major new American play. It is too soon to tell. As it stands now, it is a provocative, meaningful, thought provoking and not to be missed.

Last of the Boys continues performances (Tues.-Thurs. 7:30 PM/ Fri. 8 PM/ Sat. 3:00 PM & 8 PM/ Sun 2:00 PM & 7:30 PM) through October 17 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540, box office: 609-258-ARTS (2787); online

Last of the Boys by Steven Dietz; directed by Emily Mann
Cast (in order of appearance):
Jeeter…………TOM WOPAT
The Young Soldier…………STEVEN BOYER

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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