San Francisco, San Francisco, it’s a helluva town. Or so think the three Vietnam-bound Marines to whom SF plays host on their last night stateside in Dogfight (Second Stage Theatre), a new musical based on the 1991 movie. The date is November 21, 1963, the day before JFK’s assassination, but this has no noticeable effect on the action; it’s simply a pretentious way of telling us that the story takes place before Americans supposedly lost their illusions about politics in general and the Vietnam War in particular.
But Dogfight‘s three “jarheads,” who call themselves “the three B’s” because their last names all begin with B (they met while waiting lined up in alphabetical order), already seem well advanced in disillusion. The three sailors on leave in New York in the 1944 Bernstein-Comden-Green musical On the Town, the shadow of which hovers darkly over Dogfight—one of the latter’s three marines is even named Bernstein—only wanted to find compatible girls to date. Their ’60s Marine counterparts, more cynical, pool their funds for a “pig party” or “dogfight”: The Marine who brings back the ugliest date wins the jackpot.
This slimy but not unimaginable notion makes an iffy premise for a musical, requiring the female principals to start as victims shanghaied under false pretenses, and making the male leads seem like either unsympathetic schmucks or jerks who equate schmuckiness with Semper Fi spirit. The show worsens matters by ladling on globs of 20/20 hindsight, making its three would-be heroes warble about the ticker tape parades they’ll receive when they come home victorious from “this little country near India.” The tragic joke that history’s about to play on them, considerably nastier than the one they’re playing on their dates for the evening, isn’t seriously explored, just used as a lever, yanked periodically to keep us feeling compassion for them.
One of the trio, Boland (Josh Segarra), turns out to be a thorough schmuck (despite Segarra’s appealing performance). He not only cheats to win the bet, but also gives his buddy Birdlace (Derek Klena), the central figure, anti-advice on his romance with Rose (Lindsay Mendez), the not-really-so-doglike girl whom Birdlace recruits as his date. Naturally, while their night on the town runs through a string of false starts and harsh misunderstandings, Rose and Birdlace evolve from Petruchio and Kate into Romeo and Juliet. Or would if Boland and Southeast Asia didn’t intervene. The third Marine, Bernstein (Nick Blaemire), seems there mainly to provide comic relief, of a long-antiquated Jewish stereotype kind: glasses, big words, squeamishness about pain and sex.
Authors Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Peter Duchan spend much time on the men’s hunt for “dogs,” and on the gals’ rebellion when Boland’s date (an amusing performance by Annaleigh Ashford) accidentally spills the beans about his chicanery. Little time is spent delving into the characters of their three nonheroes, who they are, what drives them to pull this degrading stunt, what bonds them once Boland’s trickery is exposed. The Pasek-Paul songs, mostly entertaining and skillful, supply a lot of fun, as energetically choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, but very little emotional revelation. Duchan’s script chiefly keeps the plot moving, and is sometimes blurry even at that. (Since Birdlace misses the three men’s tattoo-parlor appointment, when did he acquire his three-bees tattoo?)
And for all its heavy ironizing about the distance between the glory the men expect and the crap they get, the show never conveys any sense of what Vietnam meant then or means now. Its political blankness is especially puzzling because of its setting—San Francisco was among the earliest sources of antiwar protest—and because the script makes Rose a wannabe folk singer who idolizes Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, not famous lovers of military intervention abroad. The show’s last segment feels particularly cursory, embodying Birdlace’s Vietnam experience in a sound-and-light barrage that could symbolize any battle anytime, and conveying his grief over his lost buddies in a frenetic, nondescript final song that reduces Klena, otherwise an impressive performer, to off-key screaming, followed by a reunion with Rose that’s no more than a standard Hollywood clinch-and-fade-out. That’s especially disheartening because Mendez and Klena, like the history the show glosses over, clearly have the capacity to offer a much richer experience.