The tug of war
In 'Streamers,' soldiers facing vietnam combat their own fears
There's a fine line between staginess and theatricality, and it shifts with changing times and tastes. What struck an earlier audience as stark and powerful drama may leave us shaking our heads at its stereotypes and melodrama - just as, no doubt, some acclaimed works of our own time will come to seem like risible cliches.
It's painful to report that these thoughts are provoked by the Huntington Theatre Company's staging of David Rabe's "Streamers," one of the play's few major revivals since its 1976 Broadway success. Painful because that earlier production clearly resonated with its audiences as a powerful antiwar statement, something theaters and audiences are longing to find right now; and painful because director Scott Ellis has assembled a fine cast of actors, who each create many thoughtfully developed and forcefully presented moments.
Nevertheless, this play, in this production, at this time, simply does not work. It's meticulously constructed, both in its overall structure and in the rhythm of individual lines, and it's driven by an admirable sense of purpose: Though Rabe has differentiated it from his so-called Vietnam plays, including "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel" and "Sticks and Bones," he clearly wants "Streamers" to leave us aghast at the ways in which war makes men crazy. The problem is that we just can't believe a word of it.
The play is not overtly a war story; it unfolds in a single room, in an Army barracks outside Washington, D.C., in 1965, when Vietnam still sounded like an exotic and unlikely destination for the three young recruits who bunk together here. But all the tensions, fears, and violence that explode over its two long acts are clearly shadowed by the specter of war, and by the military remolding of personality that it requires. These men aren't in a war zone, yet, but they're already at war, with each other and with themselves.
So far, so good. But as Rabe develops the characters, he falls back with distressing regularity on stereotypes that, three decades after he wrote them, ring alarmingly false. We get the effeminate gay man, the possibly closeted young Midwesterner, the hardworking black man, and a couple of drunken sergeants who like to scare their charges with stories of "streamers" - paratroopers whose chutes fail to open - and other horrors of combat. Throw in the streetwise black soldier, repeatedly called an animal, whose arrival precipitates the plot's melodramatic and manipulatively violent climax, and you've got every war-movie cliche except the comic Italian.
Apparently we're supposed to wonder, along with his roomies, whether Richie really is gay. But as written, and as performed with rigid delicacy by Hale Appleman, he never leaves us any room for doubt. Mostly we're just baffled as to why the other men don't believe his repeated responses to their worried inquiries that, yes, he really is "queer."
Ato Essandoh lands the showiest role, as the wild Carlyle, and he invests it with plenty of savage energy - just what's called for, but hardly a multilayered portrait of a black man in a white man's army. By contrast, J.D. Williams makes the stolid Roger a quiet man, determined to get through whatever happens by keeping his mouth shut and, when necessary, turning his back. And Brad Fleischer as Billy, the kid from Wisconsin who might or might not like boys, delivers the right mix of wide-eyed idealism and troubled searching.
The problem is that every character, sooner or later, is given a floridly embroidered, elaborately figured speech in which to reveal his inmost being. The biggest of these, in fact, is the one that ends the play, when Sergeant Cokes, unaware of the bloody climax that has come just before, launches into a seemingly interminable narrative of drunken accidents and battle scars.
Larry Clarke delivers this speech with admirable finesse; his performance is like a master class in monologue. But all the technique in the world can't make this, or any of the other characters' arias, blend believably into the texture of the play.
Perhaps if Ellis had created a less severely naturalistic milieu, we could accept these long flights of argument and rumination as the vividly theatrical moments Rabe meant them to be. On Neil Patel's realistic set, though, with Jeff Croiter's equally natural and unemphatic lighting, the passionate speeches just turn purple.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.