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A CurtainUp Review
Last of the Boys

I'd heard a range of reactions to Steven Dietz's Last of the Boys, now in world premiere at the Berlind Theatre of Princeton's McCarter complex, and looked forward to seeing the play. I found that it's not an easy play either to rave about or to pan. It has very good elements: story, depth, non-literal levels, interesting complexity, political ramifications, and good comfy, funny talk. In fact it is strewn with dialogue bits so good they hog attention and want to stand alone.

In the less-than-good category the play is convoluted and it gets preachy. The female characters have a troubled relationship that is inexplicably reconciled. Further, elements that don't fit together are forced. I am fine with ghosts. I'll suspend disbelief as readily as the next person, but when a ghost is shoe-horned in as a keystone for improbable character connections, I fear it could be a fatal error.

An important component is the way in which characters cling to the past: to Nam, to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara-- a man with a plan, to the Stones, to lost love, to lost fathers. There are plenty of juicy relationships and rifts-- father-son, buddy-buddy, man-woman, father-daughter, mother-daughter. There are paybacks and a spilling of beans that gets out of hand. Finally, there's forward momentum: a walking memorial of a girlfriend may finally break free of the past and step into the future.

The principal character, Ben (Joseph Siravo) lives in a beat up trailer in an abandoned trailer park. The location on a toxic waste site is a perfect metaphor for the poisons of the past that haunt Ben's mind. His father had, back in the day, been an aide Ben's hero, Robert McNamara. Ben was estranged from his father, who recently passed on. He suffers from guilt, yet believes his father betrayed him by becoming disenchanted with the war and with him.

More au courant than one might anticipate, the work has shifting and almost subliminal references to the present-- the idea of going far afield of urgent threats to defend the U.S. by invading foreign places, the un-pretty picture of what we sometimes do in other countries, the fact that McNamara eventually regretted his contributions to the Vietnam conflict.

Ben's Vietnam vet buddy, Jeeter (Tom Wopat), pays his usual summer visit. He has come from Ben's father's funeral, which Ben did not attend. He brings a suitcase, quite literally dumping father-baggage in Ben's lap. These two men, who were in combat together back when they were really just kids, have developed their little rites. Both actors are totally on board, but director Emily Mann might find more powerful ways to show the strength of their bond and make it convincing.

One night, the shade of a soldier appears. Is he a projection from Ben's troubled mind? Is he conjured by another character? Ben assumes the persona of his admired McNamara. The soldier's visitations continue and they enact a ritual. The ghost presence provides ample warning for Ben, if he is paying attention: He must deal with the past, or the past will deal with him.

Jeeter looks disreputable, but is quite California-eloquent. He says we become the people we need, and he follows Rolling Stones tours around the country so that he can hold up a sign for the old rockers to see. He suffers from minor episodes, some sort of post-traumatic syndrome. Now he has gotten his hopes up over a new girlfriend, Salyer (Jenny Bacon), who is fragile and tied to the past with issues of her own. The name of the father she never saw turns up on the Vietnam Memorial, and at age 35 she runs off with Jeeter to escape mom. But Lorraine, the mom, shows up at the trailer park to claim her.

When Deborah Hedwall's Lorraine appears, she very nearly walks off with the show. Maintaining that " Good whiskey does not have a first name," she'll still down whatever is being passed around, and she'll gladly share her opinions: " I tried for years [to be a Republican]. Something always gets in the way-- tolerance, compassion, human decency." Lorraine, too, has suffered Vietnam fallout. She wants her daughter, with whom she does not get along, to come home. A fascinating character, Lorraine erupts onto the scene, but then fades like a spent firework as her part is eclipsed by other concerns of the playwright.

Eugene Lee's set communicates the atmosphere well-- a faded, broken billboard looms in the fog behind a shabby old trailer. Mismatched stuff, mostly lawn chairs, litters the front of the place. Razor wire and sandbags on the periphery connote both the old Super Fund site and a war zone. The contribution of sound designers Milburn and Bodeen. can be heard in the sounds of Bob Dylan and other sixties music as well as the occasional copter.

The play's main problems arise from an improbable linking of disparate elements that strain credulity. But the characters are all looney tunes in their own way, and their personalities come across loud and clear. The mood and atmospherics speak of loss, guilt, the past, mystery, and maybe the dim beginnings of hope. Last of the Boys is unusual and original, mind bending and time blending.

Private Eyes

By S
Set Design: Eugene Lee
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Costume Design: David Murin
Sound Design: Bob Milburn, Michael Bodeen Running time: 2 hours with one 15 min. intermission
Berlind Theatre. McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, NJ
09/07/04 - 10/17/04
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 10/01 performance
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