An old theater anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, has Clifton Webb and Tallulah Bankhead cruising soldiers on leave in Manhattan during WWII to see which of them would get lucky for the night. Evan Smith may or may not know the story, but he uses its premise as the take-off point for his new play, “Servicemen.” Webb and Bankhead are never mentioned here, of course, but they possessed the kind of world-weary insouciance and privilege that might have made some sense of Smith’s anachronistic play. Eric Martin Brown and Olivia Birkelund, who play the roles of Gray and Cyn, wear vintage clothes from the 1940s and are forever lighting up cigarettes — the stage is redolent with smoke even before the play begins — but it’s simply dress-up time. So, too, is the play. Even set designer Derek McLane’s backdrop of Manhattan, with its too boxy international-school-of-architecture skyline, gets the period wrong.
Gray and Cyn are roommates sharing a fabulous New York apartment courtesy of her husband, who is stationed in the South Pacific. They hit the bars and none-too-discreetly make a game of bedding soldiers. Despite his being draft age, Gray avoids service by going the 4-F route due to his homosexuality, a ploy that gives him no pause even though a quarter of a century later it was known to still KO careers in the Vietnam war era. One night Gray beds Si (Anthony Veneziale), an 18-year-old sailor from Kansas who is a gay virgin despite being into Bette Davis in a big way. It’s difficult to tell which is more of a turnoff, Si’s telling Gray he loves him or the boy’s fixation on Davis pic “Old Acquaintance.” One other crimp in the evening: Si has to be on the 6 a.m. ship out of there, and taking a tip from Gray, he blithely wonders if maybe he, too, shouldn’t declare his queer status to Uncle Sam. It is decided there simply isn’t time for such second thoughts — and so Si goes off to the war in France where he writes Gray a love note and Gray belatedly writes him back and the letter is returned “addressee deceased.” Now that he’s dead, Si becomes the love of Gray’s life.
As any avid Off Broadway theatergoer knows, Gray is terribly superficial because he is young, very good-looking and homosexual. He ultimately pays for this sorry condition by enlisting in the Canadian army, which apparently doesn’t cross-check with its U.S. counterpart, and immediately gets offed. That’s not entirely bad news since it means there is no act three where seven homosexual soldiers in a barracks somewhere in Belgium trade sassy one-liners that mask their inherent loneliness on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge.
More in keeping with Gay Legit 101 is that Gray and Cyn share a best friend, Glenn (Steven Polito), a professional drag queen who gooses up the proceedings by performing rousing renditions of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Falling in Love Again” in full costume. Although it is entirely likely that female impersonators were doing Dietrich before the celluloid had dried on “The Blue Angel,” it’s doubtful their performance was informed by Madeline Kahn’s sendup of the lisping German icon in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.” At least Polito, a.k.a. Hedda Lettuce in the world of Off Off Broadway, does exhibit the requisite verve and style to play either Gray or Cyn.
Heather Matarazzo plays Cyn’s teenage daughter, Gloria, who has been away at boarding school and doesn’t much care for sharing her absentee mother with Gray on their annual lunch together. Yes, heterosexuals can be jerks too. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to the young Jane Withers, Matarazzo certainly enlivens the proceedings with line readings so punchy and energized they don’t always register before the laughter does.
Director Sean Mathias has obviously left these actors to their own devices. Most successful is Veneziale, who plays Si with sweet, uncloying affection, then appears as a callous act two trick of Gray’s. Chastened by Si’s death, Gray now finds himself on the other side of the bed, begging for a little affection as this new soldier provides the big comeuppance:
“You can stay if you’d like,” says Gray.
“Thanks, but I got plans,” replies the soldier. “So, uh, thanks a lot.”
Smith can’t pile on enough abuse, and who can blame a cast and director for not bringing much coherence to what happens in the play’s next 10 minutes?
Gray tells Cyn, “You keep me around like a lap dog so you don’t have to face what a crashing wreck you are.”
“I drag you down?” cries Cyn. “You are the sluttiest pansy on the Eastern seaboard.”
For some reason, Glenn is present for this contretemps and make use of his proximity to Gray by engaging him in a brief makeout session, which leads Gray to rebuff his female-impersonator friend and quickly reconcile with Cyn, who says she’ll divorce her husband and marry Gray, whom she has always loved but never before found the words to tell him.
Only the next scene of “Servicemen” makes sense: Gray enlists.