A Berkeley drama department grad student and lecturer, John Fisher took the Bay Area theater scene by storm last year with two brilliantly realized romantic comedies, "The Joy of Gay Sex" and "Medea: The Musical." His first drama, "Combat!," may yet prove to be the great gays-in-the-military play numerous stage scribes have attempted over the last several years; it's two-thirds there. Engaging, witty, resourceful, this 3 1/4-hour script requires only editorial fine-tuning to pull its cinematic sweep into sharp focus.

A Berkeley drama department grad student and lecturer, John Fisher took the Bay Area theater scene by storm last year with two brilliantly realized romantic comedies, “The Joy of Gay Sex” and “Medea: The Musical.” His first drama, “Combat!,” may yet prove to be the great gays-in-the-military play numerous stage scribes have attempted over the last several years; it’s two-thirds there. Engaging, witty, resourceful, this 3 1/4-hour script requires only editorial fine-tuning to pull its cinematic sweep into sharp focus.

“Combat!” is already worthy of play on any first-rate regional stage. (Why American Conservatory Theater or the Berkeley Rep haven’t pelted this fast-rising author with commissions is a mystery only terminal cluelessness or local-talent distrust can explain.)

It unfolds its epic saga on three central narrative planes, one of which is fact-based. The period is World War II, from preliminaries to aftermath. Dr. Harry Stack Sullivan (Paul Tena), once America’s most famed psychiatrist, helps introduce a psychiatric exam to the Selective Service screening process. But to his horror, other powers include homosexuality as a mental-illness disqualification. A gay man himself, Sullivan protests.

The other principal threads are imagined romances. Marine enlistee John (Christian Milne) experiences his first gay kiss, and then true love, with squad mate Mark (Jeremy Proctor). Meanwhile, John’s ex-girlfriend, Susan (Kegan Stedwell), joins the WACs, where she, too, finds same-sex life partnership with Maj. Beverly (Elsa Wolthausen).

The playwright’s grand design encompasses famous battles as it cartwheels between these stories and larger events. A lone black Marine recruit (Darryl Stephens) adds another dimension to the notion of patriotic, institutional prejudice. Past history, and the United States’ willful wartime ignorance of Final Solution rumors, are also referenced, to powerful effect.

Fisher’s main thesis indicts this first explicit anti-gay military policy as setting a precedent that would reverberate for decades, in many arenas. The American Psychiatric Assn., for example, didn’t drop homosexuality from its list of disorders until the 1970s.

Throughout a long first act, “Combat!” juggles myriad elements, with engaging , witty, resourceful, cinematically sweeping results. Those qualities remain thereafter, but Fisher’s focus dissipates. When we ought to get closer to individual dramas, he instead pours on figures talking like position papers, riskier shifts in tone and problematic stage gambits. Some work wonderfully. Others feel forced. A reincarnation/love-beyond-death twist is sweet but stands out oddly as the play’s single fantasy touch. More troublesome are the many roles (Mark Twain-inspired Devil, FDR, Gandhi, an inexplicable drum-majorette type) played by Jane Paik; their sardonic narration has a campy, Brechtian tilt that cheapens the play as a whole.

Assistant director/choreographer Paik does lay claim to the show’s giddiest interlude, a marvelous war-game maneuver staged in finger-snapping mock jazz-ballet style. With 24 actors playing multiple roles on designer Kate Edmunds’ often bare stage (a huge rising/sinking platform is the major scenic component), “Combat!” wears its occasional rough edges well.

The principals are quite fine; the minor roles sometimes betray student talent. Fisher gives himself a plum role as tough-love D.I. Jake Tower, a spectacular mix of fussy-uncle Paul Lynde and Full Metal Jacket’s psycho-sarge Lee Ermey. He’s superb.

“Combat!” feels like a vast screen epic viewed in messy first cut. It needs work, but the expansiveness and substance are already there. Major regional theaters might be wise to sniff out the potential before they’re trumped.

Combat! an American Melodrama

Production

BERKELEY, Calif. A University of California at Berkeley/Center for Theater Arts presentation of a play in two acts written and directed by John Fisher, with choreography and assistant direction by Jane Paik.

Crew

Set, Kate Edmunds; costumes, Fei Wong, Janet Nakamura; lighting, David K.H. Elliott; fights, Matthew Schmidt; sound, Karen Burnes; stage manager, Anne Bigley. Opened Feb. 29 , 1996, at Zellerbach Playhouse. Reviewed March 3; 471 seats; $ 8 top. Running time: 3 HOURS, 15 MIN.

With

Cast: Ben Bergen, Drew Burns, Aaron Butler, Gary Cannon, Monica Cortes, Craig Doede, Jeffrey Fierson, John Fisher, Calum Grant, Suzy Harbulak, Forrest Hartl, Alan LaPolice, Gabriel Macen, Christian Milne, Jane Paik, Jackie Parker, Jeremy Proctor, Greg Sabin, Corey Schaffer, Matthew Schmidt, Darryl Stephens, Kegan Stedwell, Paul Tena, Elsa Wolthausen.
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