For years I've kept an informal list of successful musicals based on dubious premises. Consider hits like Chicago (celebrity lady murderers) Sweeney Todd (serial killer and partner sell “special” pies) Little Shop of Horrors (nebbish conquers cannibal house plant) and Grey Gardens (cat lady relatives of Jacqueline Onassis make good). My most recent addition to this quirky canon is a powerful, wrenching, poignant show, based on the film : Dogfight. For those of you who don't know, a dogfight is a despicable contest held by Marines in which they create a money pool, then compete to see which can bring the ugliest girl to the proceedings, under the guise of a date. In the more global context, dogfight would seem to be a metaphor for the cruel and desperate measures we are driven to, under grueling circumstances. The grueling circumstances being : Life.
The tough, rambuncious marines in question here, are spending their last night of recreation before being dispatched to combat in Vietnam. (Coincidentally, also the night before the Kennedy assassination.) One marine in particular, Eddie Birdlace will ask a very intelligent waitress, Rose Fenny to a party, without (of course) disclosing his true purpose. At the last minute he wants to call it off, but is stuck when Rose is afraid he's ashamed of her. When Rose most dash to the bathroom before succumbing to the technicolor yawn, one of the other women sets her straight. She delivers a much deserved blow to Eddie's jaw and storms off.
Created by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Music and Lyrics) and Peter Duchan (Book) Dogfight strikes a kinetic balance between social commentary, tragedy, and tenacious altruism. We can understand the rage and entitlement issues of the fledgling soldiers. They do not have the luxury of expressing ambivalence or terror. They must march forth into battle, ready to die for their country. These marines believe validation as warriors will give meaning to their lives. They also believe it gives them permission to treat civilians with tacit contempt. They are perfectly willing to exploit the loneliness and pain of unsuspecting women for their own amusement. In a short brothel scene, Bernstein (one of the more likable characters) treats the madam with such disrespect it borders on rape. This is where Dogfight enters the realm of truly formidable theatre. What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a hero? A warrior? How do we summon courage? Must we forfeit our humanity to survive in a world overflowing with viciousness and cynicism?
I was overcome by the tumultuous emotion, incision, originality, anger and tenderness that comprised this unforgettable musical. The cast was electrifying, vulnerable, bold and meticulous. Dogfight, it seems to me, is one of the reasons we keep going to the theatre, to experience that quirky brilliance you can only find on stage with live, devoted actors and other pros who are willing to take risks. Dogfight was remarkable.
Dogfight plays at WaterTower Theatre in Addison, from July 25th-August 17th, 2014. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. 972-450-6232. www.watertowertheatre.org