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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
When I saw Evan Smith's The Uneasy Chair in 1998 I was much taken with this young writer's ability to express his own thoroughly modern take on human relationships through the lens of the manners and mores of the Victorian era. In Servicemen, which is now having its Off-Broadway premiere under the auspices of the New Group, he moves forward in time to New York during World War II. He again displays a gift for sharp-edged dialogue, though his play about an unconventional couple ends up echoing more than challenging conventional sentiments of the period.
The "uneasy" relationship currently on display is that of two lonely and lost people who try to keep their distance from the war's almost universal call to patriotism by drinking and partying, and behaving like characters in a 1930s film. Cyn (Olivia Birkenlund ) a wealthy 37-year-old society matron sees more of Gray (Eric Martin Brown}, a 30-year-old gay man, than her husband, a navy cartographer stationed in Hawaii. She's blonde and cool and true to her metaphorically apt name. He's also blonde and cool, with a name that epitomizes the gray zone in which he exists. As we quickly learn, Cyn's and Gray's only participation in the war effort is to cruise Manhattan's night spots, picking up servicemen en route to oversees duty. Gray gets to bed the gay pickups, Cyn the straight ones.
Their conversations are glib and often outrageous, as in the opening scene when Cyn's answer to Gray's "Would you go to bed with a Nazi?" is "How is he built?" Cyn's isolation from the general mood of patriotism is bolstered by a rock-rib Republican conviction that "the country is going to hell in a handbasket under Roosevelt -- that Democrat". Gray can't see himself as a soldier, especially in a military of rock-rib heterosexuals. When he gets his draft notice, he follows Cyn's advice to tell the doctor at the induction center that he is gay (though later he covers up his conflicted feelings about this by glibly bragging that the draft board excused him when he told them that he had theater tickets. As Cyn and Gray are both uneasy in a world where duty to country and sacrifice are the order of the day, so their friendship is also not as easygoing as it initially appears.
Enter into this picture of convention defying nights on the town, Si (Anthony Veneziale in a strong supporting performance), an 18-year-old sailor from Oklahoma who has never had sex with anyone. Unworldly as he is, Si is familiar with the cross-dressing habits of the author of the book he's named for and slips with ease into Gray's bed. This night of love not only changes the young sailor but becomes an epiphany for Gray who is deeply touched by the boy's declaration that it's loving him that enables him to risk his life. After a somewhat different replay of that transforming event, this time between Si and Cyn, even her veneer starts to crack.
The play unreels in half a dozen locations and introduces two other characters (with William Westernberg ably taking on three very minor parts): Gray's friend Glenn (Steven Polito), a drag queen performer and Cyn's teenaged daughter Gloria (Heather Matarazzo making the most of her cameo role) who is as dedicated to the war effort as her mother is not. Polito, who has had considerable success as drag queen Hedda Lettuce (a character he created in 1992), enhances the mood and texture, especially when he does a Marlene Dietrich impersonation. He also has one of the play's most moving scenes during which we get an inside glimpse into his longstanding relationship with Gray.
The British director Sean Mathias, whose sexually explicit take on Noël Coward's Design for Living preceded Joe Mantello's recently opened Roundabout version, evidently understands the play's shift in mood and has staged it with a film noir sensibility that, like its two main characters, straddles the 1930s and 1940s. Designer Derek McLane, a New Group regular, supports this feeling with a sparsely furnished set that takes us from Cyn's luxury apartment, to Gray's rented room, their drag queen friend Glenn's dressing room, a restaurant and two military induction centers. The most elaborate set element is an upstage scrim through which we periodically see the Manhattan skyline and a rather distracting arrangement of drapes at the front of the stage. The costumes by Catherine Zuber and Alejo Vietti are as historically accurate as the incidental music which includes such period standards as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy", "Falling In Love Again" and "What'll I Do". Despite the evocative staging, the wide playing area often seems underpopulated, and one comes away wishing the New Group were still in the smaller, more intimate theater used for its initial productions.
In the final analysis, Servicemen is an interesting but problematic play. Its flaws do not stem from anything in the staging, but from structural weaknesses in the script. Gray's epiphany is more melodramatic than convincing and the drag queen character, while funny and moving, adds little to the character development. The allusion to the more recent "Don't Ask Don't Tell" controversy is still timely but what happens to Sil and Gray smacks just a little too much of an author's contrivance in the interest of making a point -- in this case to show that his man about town is really a man of valor.
LINKS TO OTHER PLAYS MENTIONED
The Uneasy Chair
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