Corrections or additions?
This review by Anne Rivera was prepared for the
September 22, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights
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
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
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
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
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
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
– 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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