The title of this musical—based on the affecting 1991 movie—refers to a hideous sort of male-bonding competition among a group of Marines the night before they ship out of San Francisco: Whoever brings the ugliest woman to a party wins. But Eddie ends up falling for Rose, the shy aspiring singer/songwriter he’d intended to humiliate, and they spend an increasingly tender night together. It’s 1963, so you know where he’s shipping out to, and that adds a melancholy foreboding to their eight-hour romance. The film’s a potentially powerful basis for a stage work; my hopes were high; and last Thursday’s opening night of ArtsWest’s production started engagingly enough.
Until we got to the party scene. A pretty vile idea, right? Cruel public ridicule of innocent women? Well, unbelievably, the scene is played for laughs, broad ones at the women’s expense, and it got them. One of the women was played by a man in drag; another flung herself around the dance floor deliberately spastically; another was supposed to be Native American, which topped this shitpile with a charming dollop of racism. I’m not sure whether this approach was the intention of the book writer, Peter Duchan, or the brilliant idea of director Mathew Wright. In either case, I’ve never seen a more staggeringly misguided, profoundly offensive misreading of artistic intent.
The scene simply invalidates the rest of the show. Though Devon Busswood, as Rose, gives her all to her subsequent solo lament, how hypocritical is it to expect the audience to be moved by her mistreatment when the show itself does what Eddie did? There’s an attempted rape near the start of Act 2; how are we supposed to feel this as a moral outrage if we’ve just spent 10 minutes laughing at women made to appear as grotesque as possible?
That was a specific problem. Dogfight’s overall problem is that it evokes next to nothing of the film’s peculiar bleak bittersweetness, either in the Eddie/Rose plotline or in the backdrop of the Vietnam War experience (we spend a good amount of time with Eddie’s fellow soldiers) and the cultural rift it caused, still an open wound a half-century later. Co-credited to Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the music is more or less Rent-lite (though attractively orchestrated), just like, it seems, every other small-scale musical since, and the lyrics rhyme a bit glibly, especially coming from the mouths of Marines. Eddie, Rose, and Vietnam all deserve a deeper treatment than what is basically a Very Special Episode of Glee. But it’s that party scene in particular that demands rethinking, because as it stands it’s as near-unwatchable as anything I’ve ever seen on a stage. ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., 938-0339, artswest.org. $5–$37. 7:30 p.m. Wed.–Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 22.