When you don’t know what’s coming, seeing a play named "Dogfight" conjures up images of a pair of pit bulls surrounded by gambling and shouting men, dripping sweat and testosterone.
Well, All In Productions’ "Dogfight" that opened Friday night has shouting men, gambling, dripping sweat and testosterone to spare. The only thing missing are the fighting dogs.
Winding up its inaugural four-play season, All In Productions took a mighty swing at a two-year-old Off-Broadway sensation that received a suitcase full of awards and nomination as well as generally rave reviews from the tough New York critics.
Eddie Birdlace (Lucas Pastrana) is a newly-minted Marine in San Francisco with one day until he leaves for this "little place near India called Vietnam." Joining Birdlace in a final night of revelry are Bernstein (J. T. Backus) and Boland (Eric Pfeiffer). Three men with "B" for a last name and each with a tattoo of three bumblebees on their soldier arms. Along with their buddies, they have rented a bar for a party before they sail off to fight a war they are all anxious to get to.
These Marines, facing the unknown, have left no stone unturned in their quest for Tough Guy Goodbyes. They have decided to put money down for the bar, the music, the booze and the dogfight.
The dogs, in this case, are the ugliest women they can find. The money goes into a pot, and the guy with the worst girl wins the prize.
A big part of this "I got bigger balls than you do" is the absolute ignorance of the cruelty of what they are about to do. Not a single marine has even a moment’s hesitation about the "fun" they are about to have. It’s as if they are wired differently than the rest of the world, and their sanity is the first deserter of the war.
Into this moral swamp comes Rose Fenny (Rachael Zientek), a waitress at a diner who has a dream inside her guitar case and the collection of records in her bedroom. This is San Francisco at the turn of the decade, and the girl on acoustic guitar sound is rampant. Think Joan Baez. Think Rose.
Eddie meets Rose and convinces her to come to the party with him. It doesn’t take much convincing because Rose has a social life that is more like a potty than a party.
The path of the play from this point is obvious.
She finds out about the dogfight and wishes Eddie and his mates a fast and one-way trip to a hell of their own making. She returns home, a sadder but wiser girl. As she sits on her bed, she sings, "All disasters have an upside, and you can find one if you try." And sure enough, here comes the upside when Eddie returns, falls on his sword, wins Rose over, takes her to bed (her first, by the way) and ships out with her address tucked inside his pocket.
Cue the music and Eddie comes back after his war. His buddies are dead. He has been wounded in the leg. The San Francisco he left has changed, and as he gets off the bus, a hippie spits in his face.
Eddie stands alone on the stage singing the mournful ballad "Come Back," a tale about his sadness, his war, his buddies and the loneliness of the world in which he now finds himself.
And just as we are about to cry with him, who should show up but Rose, guitar case in hand. He tells her what happened to him. They embrace and she mutters, "Welcome home."
"Dogfight" is not a Vietnam War play. It is not a play about soldiers or Marines. It’s a play about love and how it can blossom out of the dirtiest and most foul soil. These soldiers fought the war they wanted to fight and treated their women as disfigured pets. And out of all that, we got love.
Zientek continues to be an absolute breathtaking marvel to behold on a stage. Like any great actor, it’s the little things that separate the stars from everyone else. And Zientek, who has a face that’s like a window into her soul, has all the little things.
As she and Eddie are finishing their date, before climbing into bed, he notices her chill and gives her his satin jacket. Zientek puts it on and as she walks away, there is this tiny smile, hidden from him, and this restrained clutch of the jacket in her tender hands. It’s a little thing, but it shouts loudly.
Pastrana gives Eddie a polish of farmer boy going off to raise some hell, both in the bar and in a paddy in Vietnam. He’s a strong actor, and there is obviously chemistry between him and Zientek.
The other standout was Amber Smith who played Marcy, the larcenous hooker who was hired for the dogfight. Smith, who was a winner in "Boeing Boeing" at Chamber Theater last month, gives her role, a small but important one, the kind of depth and cut that you don’t often see.
The opening night performance was hampered by uncertain sound levels, and at times lyrics were overpowering while at others I strained to hear what was going on.
Founding company member Robby McGhee directed the first production of "The Last Five Years" and directed "Dogfight." He has a marvelously intuitive sense of the pace of a story. He, unlike many young directors, is willing to let things just develop, without forcing the issue.
Once they get the sound thing worked out, this production may be the final one in their season, but it’s one of the first in the Milwaukee season and well worth a visit to Next Act Theatre to see these kids in action.
"Dogfight" runs through Sept. 19 and information on tickets and showtimes can be found here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.