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Dearboy's War Play Reviews

 

L.A. Weekly

Recommended. During World War II the U.S. military lacked a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for homosexuals. Recruits were directly queried about their sexuality, and they faced discharge if suspected of “deviant tendencies” or court-martial and jail if convicted of acting on such tendencies. In either case they suffered shame and humiliation from their involuntary outing or their lies. But despite stolid determination to avoid such consequences, confused and closeted soldier Matthew “Dearboy” Smith (Chad Allen) stumbles in his answers and, facing expulsion, cuts a deal with an army prosecutor (Jim Hiser) to deliver a “real” one for proceedings from among three others facing similar fates. Thus begins Michael Ambrose’s morality play on self-hatred and discrimination among gays, a saga that gets snagged by a number of incongruities in an otherwise engaging script. Why doesn’t Smith just keep his mouth shut? How could such a flamboyant queen as Tanner (a stellar turn by Darryl Armbruster) even get through basic training? Despite these dilemmas, director Danny LeClair delivers a taut and excellently performed production. Smith’s desperation mounts as does suspicion from fellow soldiers Tanner, brawny Horse (Dave Fofi) and childlike Billy (Tony Foster), but most compelling is the bank of peripheral characters sitting above and behind the main action, like a jury weighing the fate of these patriotic yet persecuted men. Lillian Theater, 1076 Lillian Way, Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. (no perf July 5); thru July 14. (323) 930-9304. (Martín Hernández)


Backstage West

June 20, 2001

Reviewed By Anne Kelly-Saxenmeyer

Set in the "mentally disturbed" ward of an army hospital, Michael Ambrose's World War II drama follows four servicemen facing discharge for suspected homosexuality. Nicknamed "Dearboy," the newest admit makes a deal with the JAG to gain reinstatement by obtaining an admission of criminal sodomy from one of his bunkmates. Well acted and artfully directed by Danny LeClair, this is a capable rendering of a seldom-told story. And even with a slightly unfinished quality in the script--an abrupt, rather puzzling conclusion leaves the play's more complex ethical questions, as well as some basic plot points, untended--the production is sustained by the importance of its subject.

On the night reviewed, an understudy happened to steal the show. Filling in for Darryl Armbruster as Tanner, the flamboyant, maternal presence in the group, Louis Jacobs not only made a seamless substitution but also owned the play's most evocative moment--a stunning monologue in which the character recalls his meeting with Claudette Colbert, lighting cigarettes for soldiers in a crowded club. Nicely modulated by LeClair, this moment alone synthesizes a vivid picture of an era, a well-defined character, and the palpable strain of a gay soldier facing hetero expectations.

Unfortunately the play offers no comparable opportunities for the other three leads, though their performances are admirable. Chad Allen's portrayal of Dearboy is engaging and emotionally rich, but the text allows little insight into the character beyond his immediate peril. Observing the action from above, a chorus of critical voices provides some background on Dearboy's plight, but those who might best help to reveal him--the girl back home (Caitlin Prennace) and the army buddy (Kristoffer Cusick)--are written in rather generic fashion. There are striking moments between Allen and Dave Fofi's "Horse," the tough-guy protector on the ward, more shrewd than Dearboy but somewhat less desperate. And though he's given little to do but whimper, Tony Foster's Billy brings to bear the physical threat faced by known homosexuals at the hands of fellow soldiers.

With set designer Dave Fofi and lighting designer Don Cesario, LeClair makes focused use of the Lillian's ample space. Fofi, Danielle Bray (costumes), and Ron Wyand (sound) effectively recreate the period--though the illusion is best realized by that lovingly conjured Claudette.


In Los Angeles Magazine

Dearboy’s War Battles Homophobia in World War II
by David Nichols


The plight of gay soldiers in World War II is given a remarkably promising examination in Dearboy’s War, presented by the Elephant Theatre at the Lillian Backstage. While Mike Ambrose’s story is at some levels inconclusive, a great play still emerging from the sum of its ambitious parts, those parts are neverthelesscompelling, and performed to the hilt by an excellent cast.

Danny LeClair’s stark staging begins with three of the archetypal central quartet in army cots (the pivotal feature of Dave Fofi’s bare-bones set), their quiet improvisations and Ron Wyand’s great soundtrack of ’40s tunes creating a deceptively jovial tone. An ominous voice-over of clinical terminology and first-person gay recollections (an effect warranting further investigation) strikes the first note of danger. The entrance of the title character (Chad Allen) continues the strain; then a striking use of montage for expository content sets up his motives while laying out the dominant themes in a kind of
scherzo of military homophobia.

Preventing Ambrose’s assured writing from full concerto status is a tendency to use polemic and subtext as character, the brusqueness of those archetypal delineations, and a pointless intermission. With the first act barely an hour long, the second act half so, the break halts the accelerating tension and blunts the ironic tragedy of the conclusion. There is as well a conflict in tone between quasi-naturalism and surrealism that feels incompletely conceived.

Still, there are many opportunities for fireworks, which the actors uniformly deliver. Allen’s Dearboy is riveting, lacking only the variegated shading a more gradual revelation of his agenda would provide. Fofi, as the macho Horse, is powerful and ambiguous, and Tony Foster is very touching as the weakling who loves him. As the most potentially stereotypical character, Darryl Armbruster deftly underplays and all
but steals the show, superb at the Claudette Colbert recollection.

The various representatives of heterosexuality are all fine (though the conceit of making them omniscient witnesses would work better if Don Cesario’s grim lighting rendered their presence as visible silent as when spoken), and the net effect is memorable. Though not quite the ultimate statement it aspires to be, Dearboy’s War is far from inconsiderable, and definitely recommended.

Dearboy’s War is at the Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hlywd, (323) 962-0046; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., through July 14.

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