About four years ago I went to this party. I was very young and I went to this party with a friend who was older and this “fag stuff,” as you call it was going on. . . so I did it
And then you come into the army to get away from it, right? Huh? — Roger
Prompted by uncertainty and fear, there is plenty of baiting and jesting among a small group of army recruits until it serves to provoke a round of senseless violence in David Rabe’s “Streamers.” Lauded when it was first produced Off-Broadway in 1977, it was the last of Rabe’s Vietnam War Trilogy that included “The Basic Training of Pavlov Hummel” and “Sticks and Bones.”
“Streamers” is the story of four young enlisted men awaiting their assignments. Amid the awkward alliances and adjustments that are made by the three who bunk together in an army barracks in Virginia in 1965, it is the intrusion of a recruited army transient assigned to KP that will create the most havoc. This earnest, well-acted but mostly patience-trying revival is under the disciplined direction of Scott Ellis. The play certainly makes its points, although they have been blunted by time and tamed by our increasingly inured perspectives. This production is based on the one presented last year by the Huntington Theater.
The tendency to give these roommates true but shallow descriptions — Richie, the sensitive New York homosexual; Billy, the WASP-y mid-western homophobe; and Roger, the educated conciliatory African-American — might be doing the play an injustice. But with the unsettling appearance of Carlyle, the unhinged and belligerent (also African-American) instigator, the play invokes what it means to bring together men who reflect different lifestyles and who come from different socio-economic backgrounds. It is about what happens when they are placed in the intimate but mentally and physically brutalizing environment of a camp where men are trained to kill. This is bound to kindle fires and produce stress, as the play dramatizes with a deliberate but often, again, patience-trying pace.
That this environment inevitably leads to acts of violence is incontrovertible. Rabe’s main concern seems to be the misdirected channeling of energy, the sublimated sexual drive used by men as an excuse for fighting and the making of war. Each of the men is compelled to establish a sexual identity of varying magnitude in order to stake a claim in this unnatural, perverse all-male society.
The nightmare of the experience is clearly, if a bit repetitiously, dramatized as each of the four is given opportunity to defend and justify who they are. Eventually their uneasy and testy confrontations tend to become humiliating, offensive, and dangerous. That the situation finally erupts into a bloodbath comes as no surprise. The play’s title comes from a song that is sung by paratroopers as they pull the cord and descend, but discover the chute didn’t open. “Beautiful Streamer, Open for me, The sky is above me, But no canopy.”
Apparently, Rabe’s use of this analogy is to show man’s futile attempt to manipulate and control his destiny. Given the time when this play was written, it is easier to see how three men can be so unsettled by one man’s compulsion to flaunt his homosexuality. Each of the characters seems to be almost solely defined by his sexuality and by what makes his libido tick. As you might expect “Streamers” is punctuated with raw, gritty dialogue and the action, especially in Act II, is not for the squeamish. However, this 32-year-old play doesn’t come close to displaying the kind of graphically detailed brutality and violence that we have recently become accustomed to in the theater. It is not so much an anti-war play as it is a play that examines the psycho-sexual motivations that may be a part of what instigates wars.
The dialogue is predictably crude. Director Ellis is in command of a fine group of actors. Hale Appleman is excellent as Richie, the same aggressively gay role he played last fall at the Huntington Theater Company. To his credit, he makes us empathetic to a mostly annoying character who warrants some of the disapproval and disdain he gets from his buddies. Brad Fleischer brings out the enigmatic side of the possibly sexually conflicted Billy. Roger is the play’s most personable and amusing character and J.D. Williams affords him the kind of panache and earthy reality that serves to ground the trio’s uneasy relationship.
Ato Essandoh is terrifying as Carlyle, the mentally unstable outsider whose jealousy of the other men is manifested in his provocative sexual behavior with Richie. John Sharian and Larry Clarke are terrific as an odd pair of bullying but also playfully macho sergeants, comrades who have seen combat together and have remained as close as lovers. Curiously, they are the most interesting characters in the play. If the incidents and the characters in the play appear today to be contrived, the overall experience we have within the spare, wooden barracks setting by Neil Patel, is admirably visceral. ***
“Streamers,” Roundabout Theater Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street. $63.75 to $73.75. 212-719-1300.