Dogfight: It’s MUCH Better Than Cats.
If someone said to me, “What color were the chair-stools you had at your kitchen counter in 1980?” the answer would have to be “Who remembers?”
Except that I do remember -- because the image is still in my head of a Vietnam vet sitting on one as he told me what he and friends did that night in 1965 before they shipped out.
“We had a ‘pig party,’” he said, eyes flashing with mischief. “We all put money in a pool. Then we went out to find the ugliest girls we could. Then we brought them back to the party. The guy who had the ugliest girl was the winner.”
I could see that he expected me to chortle and share his mirth, but I was appalled. Those poor young women! How did they feel when they learned what was going on? As a result, the vet’s story has been frozen in time for almost a third of a century later. That’s why I can still visualize those stools I discarded long ago.
I will admit, however, that the writer in me thought this was a good idea for a play. Bob Comfort instead saw it as a film, which it became in 1991, although he used the term “Dogfight” instead of “Pig Party.” Now the property has impressively reached the musical stage, thanks to able librettist Peter Duchan, the ever-impressive composer-lyricist team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and Joe Mantello’s terrific staging.
The show starts with a lone young woman playing guitar in the shadows. Rose is indeed living in the shadows because she is not beautiful in the way that the average person judges attractiveness. (I, however, have found Lindsay Mendez quite beautiful ever since I first saw her in Everyday Rapture. Don’t you love her style?)
We switch to a bus where a Korean War vet feels like talking to Eddie Birdlace, who’s just returning from a “tour” of Vietnam. Perhaps the older man has some nostalgia for his service days, but it’s all too recent and real to Eddie, who was one of “The Three B’s.”
That neither means “Bach, Beethoven and Brahms” nor “the barrelhouse, the boogie-woogie and the blues.” In a flashback, we see that Birdlace, Bernstein and Boland are three fledgling Marines who believed “Semper fi – do or die” in supporting each other. In time, we’ll see how full or empty those words are.
The date of the show has been carefully chosen: Thursday, November 21, 1963, fewer than 24 hours before the first Kennedy Assassination. It was the last day of America’s innocence, which is fitting for a show in which four major characters lose theirs.
At the moment, however, the Marines are full of bravado. “Goodbye to Twilight Zone and Lesley Gore,” they blithely sing. We’ll see how much they sing when they’re soon in a very different kind of zone where they’ll encounter a very different kind of gore.
Dogfight is about peer pressure, too. We may think that that odious affliction ends in high school, but it certainly continues for these three Marines. They get tattoos and laid out of peer pressure, so when the idea of a dogfight comes up, none is strong enough to say, “Nah, that’s a lousy thing to do.” Instead, it’s “The party’s on; we’re on till dawn,” “We’re gonna have some kind of time” and “We’ll be kings for an evening.” Yes, and they’ll have as much sensitivity to people as King Herod had.
Boland, the densest of the trio, defends himself by saying, “Marines have been doing dogfights since the Constitution.” Never mind that it’s wrong and horrid; it’s time-honored in Boland’s eyes, and therefore a legitimate way to spend one’s time. When they ask themselves “Are we assholes or Marines?” we know the answer.
But Boland won’t play fair, which impacts a good deal of the plot, too. There’s a secret or two that Marcy, his dogfight candidate, isn’t supposed to divulge. If inner beauty were the criterion of the contest, she’d finish in last place, for she says such colorful things as her hating “small peckers with small pockets.”
Nevertheless, Marcy does blurt out one remark that makes the guys take pause for a second: “You got to be friends from standing in line.”
Yes: if Birdlace, Bernstein and Boland had had different last names, they would have made different friends while waiting to be processed. Had they bumped into each other in civilian life, they might not have even been inclined to share a moment, let alone a word. But the alphabet and propinquity – and the desperate need to connect to someone, anyone when they’re away from home and among complete strangers – bond them. We’ll see that their bond is about a strong as the glue found on a Post-It note.
When Eddie meets Rose and sees her as a potential dogfight entrant, he tries to win her over by talking about contemporary music. We see that she knows more than he, but he has a confident air that makes him seem the more knowledgeable of the two. How wonderful that the writers and Mantello didn’t have Eddie searching for things to say, and stalling with, “Ahhh … ahhh” before snapping his fingers, coming out with a lie, and repeating “Yeah! Yeah! That’s it!”
How many times have you seen that in lesser works? There, the writers think we’ll enjoy being smarter than the listener, who doesn’t perceive what he’s hearing is a lie. But if someone stalled with “Ahhh … ahhh,” you’d immediately infer “This person’s lying.”
So no matter what correction Rose throws at Eddie, he comes back with a smart and quick rebuttal. As a result, although she knows more about contemporary music, she allows herself to be intimidated by his “knowledge.” This is a potent statement on how an attractive man can manipulate a woman that the world considers unattractive. Rose simply doesn’t have enough confidence in herself because she feels, to cite a book that would be popular 20 years after, that she is nothing without a man.
Rose therefore sees that Eddie is her best chance and that she must take it. As she tells herself, “You finally get what a girl is for.” En route, she’s willing to give him every benefit of the doubt -- although she finds his incessant swearing terribly off-putting. Nevertheless, Eddie matter-of-factly continues it throughout the “date.” But the impression that Lindsay Mendez gives is that Rose wants him to stop cursing because he’d become a better person if he did. That’s what she wants for him.
Rose is certainly smarter. She’s more politically conscious and knows more about where Eddie’s going than he does. Eddie has no idea how naïve he is when he says, “Someone’s gotta teach ‘em how to fight Communism.”
So we fall in love with Rose before Eddie does. That she’s so thrilled to be out on this date -- “Who’d have thought this morning that I’d be with you here?” – makes our hearts break for her. We hate Eddie, but then the writers showed how smart they were to have him have second thoughts. Now he realizes the implications of what he’s doing. “Rose,” he starts to say, “maybe we shouldn’t go in -- ” But he’s interrupted by his buddies who are ready to start the dogfight in earnest. And Eddie is a boy who can’t say no to them.
This is the big question that Dogfight asks: are you most beholden to your buddies, a young woman who’s much nicer than they, and/or yourself? Eddie finds himself switching loyalties, trying to please his Marine friends. “Semper fi, do or die,” after all. And while the full Latin phrase “semper fidelis” means “always faithful,” the reality is that we’ll see at least one of the B’s be unfaithful to his mates.
The irony is that once Eddie implies that they shouldn’t go inside, Rose immediately infers that he’s suddenly embarrassed to be seen with her. Now he must bring her in to show that he isn’t. See what happens when you set out to do something intentionally terrible?
There’s a moment late in the show where we think that Boland is going to sabotage the relationship between Eddie and Rose. No. Someone else is responsible, which once again proves that a man has been conditioned to first and foremost be loyal to his friends, because that’s what Real Men do. There’s no “semper fi” expression in the civilian world. Besides, not being considerate of a woman is considered by guys like this to be masculine behavior; to be sensitive means to be weak. Dogfight does an excellent job in reminding us that being strong doesn’t simply mean being able to maneuver through Marine maneuvers.
Interesting, too, that the show is set less than a month after a Broadway musical with a somewhat similar theme had opened: 110 in the Shade. There too a young woman has been made to feel plain, and ends the first act believing that she’s going to endure the worst fate a ‘60s woman could imagine: becoming an old maid. Of course, a 1963 musical is going to be far more gentle than a 2012 one – just as Candid Camera in the ‘60s was a more benign version of today’s What Would You Do?
The second-act opener has the Three B’s looking forward to the day when they return and are welcomed as “hometown heroes” with a “ticker-tape parade.” Why shouldn’t they assume this? That’s what had happened to veterans of other wars. Little did they know that the country would soon come to judge the Vietnam War as unjust and unnecessary. When Eddie comes marching home – as best he can – there are no hurrahs. That he lands in hippie-heavy San Francisco doesn’t help.
As Eddie, Derek Klena is an ideal mixture of smart and stupid, experienced and naïve, boorish and sensitive. Josh Segarra doesn’t make Boland a Neanderthal, but one of those villains who believes he’s on the right track. The natively attractive Nick Blaemire, who plays Bernstein, has been made up to look geeky and hideous. Were a male dogfight held, someone might well bring him to the party – and win a bundle. But he simply doesn’t see himself that way. Lots of ugly guys don’t. But they’re the ones who always want the young and beautiful women, aren’t they?
Not every composer can write convincingly for these types, but Pasek and Paul can. Their music sounds masculine, and right for the period; indeed, two songs sung at the dance sound like hits from the era. Their lyrics are marvelous, too, full of detail. (“My father raised me right. I ate every Brussels sprout.”) But they’re not too clever, which would make the characters incapable of saying them. The Three B’s sound right when they sing, “The game isn’t over till the fat lady barks” – a most apt line, because an overweight woman is certain to be brought to a dogfight. Let’s hope that Peter Duchan, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are “semper fi” to the musical theater. I know that I’ll remember Dogfight for quite a while – perhaps as long as I’ll remember the color and texture of those stools from 1980.
— Peter Filichia