Corrections or additions?

This review by Anne Rivera was prepared for the

September 22, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights

reserved.

Review: ‘Last of the Boys’

The final image in Steven Deitz’ play "Last of the Boys,"

directed by Emily Mann at McCarter’s Berlind Theater, is

that of Vietnam War veteran Ben (played by Joseph Siravo)

attempting to iron the wrinkles out of an American flag.

As the play ends, he struggles to finish the job.

The ironing board, set up outside the ramshackle trailer

where Ben makes his home, seems a little precarious – and

it is certainly too small to accommodate a large American

flag. Ben’s attempt, however, represents a partial

resolution of conflicts that have haunted him throughout

the play – and for more than 30 years since he left

Vietnam. The play is set in the present "such as it is."

Ben enlisted in the military partly to please his father.

The flag, presented to him by war buddy Jeeter (played by

Tom Wopat), is the flag from his father’s funeral – which

Ben did not attend. His father, also a veteran, was once a

close associate of former Defense Secretary Robert

McNamara and at first supported the war. He became

convinced during the conflict that America did not belong

in Vietnam; and Ben has never recovered from his father’s

change of heart, which he took personally.

The last resident of the Shady Oaks Trailer Park, which is

located on a Superfund site, Ben claims to be a carpenter,

a "builder," who "likes" the toxic dump. No evidence of

his vocation is apparent during the two-act play; and the

symbolism of the site – an inspired set by Eugene Lee – is

clear.

Ben’s buddy Jeeter, who was drafted, visits once a year

and seems marginally better adjusted, but he is also stuck

in the 1960s. A college professor who was anti-war, he

initiates a string of liaisons with women half his age and

follows Mick Jagger to concerts all over the world,

wielding a protest sign. Recorded music from the Vietnam

era – Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac –

introduces much of the action.

Despite the serious subject matter of the play, there are

a number of humorous lines. Dietz has said that Vietnam

vets told him that in order to survive they "just had to

find a way to laugh" and that he tried to infuse the play

with their spirit.

The most recent of Jeeter’s conquests is Salyer (played by

Jenny Bacon). Jeeter tells Ben that Salyer is the one he

truly loves. He warns Ben that she "wears a lot of

clothes" – even in bed, and that she thinks someone is

following her. She follows Jeeter to the trailer park and

eventually confides in Ben that her father was killed in

Vietnam. She only discovered this fact, she says, on a

recent visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Gradually it becomes clear that her father’s absence – and

the mystery of his identity – have clouded her entire

life.

Hard-boiled single mother Lorraine (played by Deborah

Hedwall), has been tracking her daughter ever since Salyer

went off with Jeeter 17 days ago. She arrives at the toxic

site in time to drink Ben’s whiskey and engage him in

heated debate about McNamara’s responsibility for her own

messed-up life.

Referring to McNamara’s book, "In Retrospect," in which he

confesses to a number of mistakes, she insists that it is

not enough to write a book that admits error. "One must

say one is sorry personally to all those who have

suffered."

There is a fifth character, billed only as "Young

Soldier," played by Steven Boyer. He assumes various

surreal – or ghostly – roles. At first he assists Ben, who

takes on the identity of his hero Robert McNamara and

several times – thinking he actually is McNamara – quotes

speeches justifying American involvement in Vietnam. As

Jeeter has told Ben, "We become the people we need to be."

Near the end of the second act, the Young Soldier changes

suddenly into a universal Every Soldier. He turns on Ben

and pushes his head roughly – and repeatedly – into a

trough of water, as if to wash away Ben’s, or McNamara’s,

transgressions. Finally Ben – as McNamara – is able to

say, "I’m sorry."

Boyer is excellent as the Young Soldier – and is always

the epitome of military discipline. When he dunks Ben’s

head in the water, he is precise, dispassionate, and

silent. Hedwall, who has appeared in several McCarter

productions, is the quintessential tough, self-sufficient

woman as Lorraine. Bacon, as Salyer, seems weak by

comparison; but maybe that is her character. Wopat and

Siravo are utterly believable as veterans.

The surreal scenes at times seem too abrupt, detracting

from the flow of the performance. Some mechanism is

necessary, of course, to present McNamara’s views, which

are an integral part of the play and of Ben’s character.

As Dietz has said in pre-opening press interviews,

"Theater traffics in metaphor and abstraction and the

surreal . . . And I think that’s particularly suited to

talk about Vietnam, which is a sort of ghost that this

country conjured that has not yet gone away."

Vietnam has certainly not "gone away" from the campaigns

of either major presidential candidate; and the lessons

enumerated in McNamara’s memoir – and quoted in the

theater program – beg to be applied to Iraq.

Books, films, and plays have been written about Vietnam,

including Mann’s own drama "Still Life." Dietz originally

intended his play, which he started writing before

September 11, 2001, to be about McNamara exclusively. It

evolved into a drama describing the "ripple effect" of

McNamara’s policies.

The problem is that the play can’t decide whether to focus

on McNamara or on the characters whose lives were

irrevocably altered by the former defense secretary’s

decisions.

– Anne Rivera

Last of the Boys. McCarter Theater, 91 University Place.

$38 to $48. 609-258-2787. To Sunday, October 17.


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