Friday, November 16, 2007
Streamers is the best show of the year
Race and sex and class feel each other out (and up) in David Rabe's Streamers.
First things first: the Huntington's revival of David Rabe's Streamers is the most powerful theatre event of the year, not as perfect as, say, Sweeney Todd, or this theatre's own Present Laughter, but certainly packing more punch. It isn't often that you hear people gasp in the theatre any more, as they do at Rabe's terrible climax, but it's somehow heartening to hear the sound: it means the theatre audience is still alive (if just barely), and still aware of its own hidden conflicts and fears, and can recognize them when they're being expertly limned. Not that Scott Ellis's carefully crafted production is flawless; indeed, sometimes the evening has the feel of a virtual "update" that doesn't quite take - which raises some interesting issues about topics which, when Rabe was first writing about them, were very live wires indeed. But in the clinch, Ellis and his talented cast come through - and whaddya know, in the end said wires still pack quite a jolt.
Perhaps this is because Rabe's writing often transcends the frame of his era (its original poster, at left) - it's not so much about 'Vietnam' as about callow young men under pressure, a perennial theme. Rabe focuses on four soldiers nervously cooling their heels as they wait to see who'll be shipped out to war. The quartet, in clichéd, well-made-play style, is almost an X-ray of the underside of American society: one young man is effete, Manhattan-bred, and gay; another is a milk-fed Midwestern boy unsure of his sexuality; yet another is a healthy, happy-go-lucky black man who knows you've got to keep your head low to get by - while the final member of the quartet, the match to all this unstable kindling, is a bitterly street-wise African-American whose alienated soul, he assures us, will remain forever unknown.
You can see, of course, that Streamers all but streams with its own sense of "period." And to the Globe's Louise Kennedy, the fact that these characters register as "types" disqualifies the play as drama. But to agree with this, you'd have to ignore (or be unaware of) the response of the house on opening night, ignore the fact that Rabe neither condescends to his characters, nor manipulates them as stereotypes, and finally, ignore the frequent crackle of his dialogue, which sometimes wanders into serious-evening-on-Broadway territory, but more often hums with the fresh energy of his lived experience (Streamers was drawn from his first, unperformed one-act, completed just after his year in Vietnam).
Or you could simply ignore Louise Kennedy - although her assessment does make you wonder. How could she be so tin-eared? It's a hard question to answer, but perhaps her tunnel-vision around women's issues (Rabe is completely masculine in his perspective) combined with a certain post-liberal complacency, seal her off from appreciating this particular playwright. Frankly, it's her loss. It's good to have Rabe back, and it's good to have Streamers back.
Although the production does raise intriguing issues surrounding topical plays; Streamers is clearly grounded in the assumptions of the 60s and 70s, particularly one central premise - that a major character could behave in a queeny fashion, yet still be granted quasi-"straight" status, since homosexuality is unthinkable to his comrades. The Huntington is not wrong, however, in contending that something like these assumptions are still very much with us - society has simply bifurcated since the play's premiere, so the theatre crowd may well imagine the whole world is like Newton Center. It's not. Homosexuality remains a social hot button - people routinely deny that Kevin Spacey and John Travolta are gay, for example, and there are plenty of major public figures in the closet in Boston (and at the Globe, for that matter). Gayness is even a hotter button in the military (it's only less talked about now because we need cannon fodder in Iraq, and gays and straights are equally suited to that purpose). And of course African-American men still often operate on "the down low," (a key turning point in Rabe's plot). Trust me, toss a sensitive kid from Wisconsin in with a Park Avenue bottom and a down-low thug today, and you'll have much the same tinder box Rabe has set up in Streamers (and the same sense of free-fall-without-a-parachute).
Ato Essandoh, J.D. Williams, and Brad Fleischer try to make it through the night in Streamers.
Still, Ellis and his cast haven't, perhaps, addressed some issues as convincingly as they might have. As the preening Ritchie, the skillful Hale Appleman exudes an ironic sense of empowerment that only manifested itself in young gay men recently - he's playing "nineties gay," not "sixties gay." But the rest of the barracks are more firmly in period - particularly Brad Fleischer as the troubled, uncertain Billy - so the cast seems to be communicating to each other across a time warp. Good as Fleischer is, however, the acting laurels probably have to go to J.D. Williams and Ato Essandoh as the straight-arrow Roger and the bat-outta-hell Carlyle. Both establish themselves as major stage presences upon their first entrances, and while one could nitpick about the lack of tension (and betrayal) in their racial camaraderie (Essandoh doesn't quite communicate the poignance of Carlyle's groping for connection, and Williams is perhaps too internally at ease with his white friendships), by the end of the play both are in the running for best-performance-of-the-year honors.
Director Ellis, alas, doesn't always compensate for Rabe's uneven dramaturgy (there's perhaps not enough sense of build in the first act, and the long coda almost cries out for cuts), while Neil Patel's empty, soaring set offers little in the way of claustrophobia - generally a touchstone of this genre - and only a half-hearted sense of agoraphobia (another small, nineties-style misstep). These are, however, quibbles before the overwhelming impression of the powerful second act. It's been a while since the Huntington dared to cut this close to its audience's quick - certainly, as the play ground toward its transgressive climax (a white man performing oral sex on a black), you could feel hackles rising all over the theatre. It's a measure of Rabe's achievement that he hangs onto the humanity of all his characters even in this most charged of situations, and a measure of the Huntington's commitment to both its art and its community that the theatre brings it off so well.