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A CurtainUp Review

I suppose you could call this a multiple-memory play since it recounts eight veterans' tour of duty in Vietnam at the height of that disastrous conflict through a series of vignettes and soliloquies. If you think of a memory play as a low-key, quiet drama, scratch that description in relation to Tracers.

This is an in-your-face primal scream of a play with more noisy and disquieting moments than quiet ones. Definitely not the show for introducing your visiting aunt from Ft. Wayne to New York's Off-Broadway Theater. It also isn't for those who feel that plays about that unfortunate war should be relegated to the history books and visits to the Vietnam War Memorial.

Hard-edged and gritty as it is, this drama nevertheless has intermittently amusing moments. Within its tough-as-nails and seemingly single word vocabulary, are poetic nuggets that invest the otherwise army-issue cast of characters with individuality and humanity. I can't compare the current limited run production to the 1980 version directed by its creator, Vietnam veteran John DiFusco, or to its other permutations, including a 1984 production at the Papp Public Theater (again directed by DiFusco). However, while Vietnam is no longer a hot theme, Tracers as directed by Leo Farley, (also a Vietnam veteran), has arrived at the 29th Street Rep with its dramatic muscle intact. Farley has mounted the play with production values that, considering the confines of the tiny stage, are nothing short of amazing. The eight actors he's assembled work as a solid ensemble while also making the most of the star turns the script provides.

The cast's ensemble excellence is best illustrated by two scenes:

The first, shows six of the young vets as new recruits being put through a grueling discipline session by their drill sergeant (William Francis Smith). Each ""maggot" is humiliated and stretched to the limits of his physical endurance -- this being a live stage and not a movie, one can only marvel at the stamina of the actors. Just when the drill becomes almost unendurable and the sergeant unbearable, he grabs our hearts with the saddening insight that drives him: The fact that one in a thousand of these kids is a warrior and that eighty per cent of them will be "targets".

Even more wrenching is a scene where the under-privileged, under-educated, under-trained soldiers drag the green net that serves as an effective multi-purpose prop, (and the centerpiece of Mark Symzak's set), to simulate a blanket in which they are wrapping the bodies of their dead compatriots who will go home in body bags, (often with missing or mismatched limbs). The war has coarsened them and seduced them into drug and alcohol abuse, but they have not become too dehumanized to be sickened by the scene in which they've been cast -- a scene that epitomizes the comment by the soldier known as The Professor (Neil Necastro) about often feeling "like a character in a Pirandello play".

Some of the most affecting of the individual and duet scenes are the more quiet ones. For example, Dinky Dau's (Thomas Wehrle) reading of a "Dear John" letter and the short but doomed get-acquainted scene between the above-mentioned Professor and Doc (David Mogentale).

Abetted by Stewart Wagner's lighting and Gerard Drazba's sound design, the play seagues from grunge and war to the dance movements of a Greek chorus -- highly dramatic if a tad too self-conscious and mannered.

Like the last show I saw at the 29th Street exactly a year ago, (Pig), Tracers is very much in keeping with the company's dedication to "daring, thought-provoking" plays even if they run against the grain of what is considered commercial.

It's also worth mentioning that this is a theater experience affordable to anyone who can afford to go to a movie--- there's even a pay-what-you will night (Thursdays).

by John DiFusco
Directed by Leo Farley
With Tony DeVito, David Mogentale, Neil Necastro, Jonathan D. Powers, Walker Richards, Vincent Rotolo, William Francis Smith, Rhomas Wehrle
29th St. Repertory, 212 W. 29th St., (465-0575)
9/11/97-10/12/97 (opening 9/18)
Reviewed 9/19/97--Elyse Sommer

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