A revival of DAVID RABE’s STREAMERS, which opens tonight at the Laura Pels Theatre, is the third in his Vietnam trilogy (he has also worked in film, writing screenplays for THE FIRM and HURLYBURLY). In a season when many of the shows on Broadway and Off-Broadway are fraught with political overtones, one might expect an anti-war manifesto. However, in STREAMERS, the war is always somewhere just off-stage. Director SCOTT ELLIS has made no effort to draw any parallels to our current conflict in Iraq.
In fact, leaving the theater this weekend a group of older women sounded almost disappointed that the play hadn’t been a rabidly anti-Iraq production. As we exited the restroom, they cornered us and asked us if there were something the “young people” would understand about the play that they hadn’t. It occurred to us that these women wouldn’t have been so very old themselves when the Vietnam War was being waged. When we told them we thought the play was perhaps about the dangers of intolerance and the relationships between men, they looked at us as if this were an insufficient answer.
This is a men’s play; there are no women in RABE’s drama except for the 1960s pin-ups on the inside of the soldiers’ lockers and a fleeting mention of the perhaps imaginary, Linda, in Billy’s monologue about a “friend” who has strayed into a homosexual lifestyle. The cast is a group of very young men (lead actor HALE APPLEMAN is only 22!) and two veteran theater actors, JOHN SHARIAN and LARRY CLARKE, who play Sergeants Cook and Rooney. (The camaraderie between these two is one of the best male friendships we’ve seen on stage in recent memory.)
The youth of actors is immediately palpable when the curtain rises: Their shaved heads look almost vulnerable and there is an innocence to the military neatness of their room. Of the main characters, J.D. WILLIAMS (of THE WIRE) is most at home in his role — he plays Roger with the kind of ease that makes you forget you are watching an actor at work. BRAD FLEISCHER and HALE APPLEMAN, who play Richie and Billy, were both a little uneven in their performances during previews, but their characters stuck with us nonetheless. At times, APPLEMAN seemed like he was acting in a different play than the other characters. ATO ESSANDOH, who plays Carlyle, has perhaps the most difficult part to play, which he manages admirably. However, in our humble opinion, his Carlyle could use a few less crazy tics. Our pal, CHARLIE HEWSON, is only on stage for a few minutes, but in our opinion, he’s a star for every second in the spotlight.
Some of the content of RABE’s 1976 play feels very dated today. The dual tensions of homophobia and racism that drive the play to its climax have all but disappeared in today’s society, particularly when only a week ago we elected our first black president. However, the central theme of STREAMERS feels very contemporary; more than anything, this is a story about young men preparing to go to war. The audience watches as the characters adjust (or don’t adjust) to the demands that the military places on them. The fears of these characters could be those of men awaiting deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq.
SIDE NOTE: If like our gray-haired pals you’re craving a more contemporary war drama, check out THE LANGUAGE OF TREES, also a Roundabout production, by playwright STEVEN LEVENSON. It’s a haunting piece about an interpreter who is kidnapped by Islamist extremists and the havoc it wrecks on his family back home.
– Laura Fenton
* Photo by: Joan Marcus