No doubt many plays will continue to address the war in Iraq, but “Special Forces” may nonetheless remain among the oddest. Author (and Theater Rhinoceros a.d.) John Fisher has mixed gay drama, camp, gender-bending and an interest in military history — mostly notably in the WWII tale “Combat!” While that ambitious play felt like a sprawling novel deftly transferred to the boards, this latest is more like an eccentric novella that holds attention while never quite pulling off its left-field conceit.
In Kuwait City circa 2003, Col. Gerald Jessup (Fisher, who has played this barking drill sergeant type role before to equally enjoyable effect) delivers a morale-boosting, tough-love speech to his Marine Corps troops. In contrast to the Gulf War, he says, “This one is going to be efficient and effective.”
The colonel is awaiting the go-ahead to send personnel on a top-secret mission. To lead the mission, Jessup selects his “fair-haired girl,” Lt. “Dame” Anderson (Helen Sage Howard), a maid even more macho than Demi Moore in “G.I. Jane.”
For second-in-command, Jessup chooses the contrastingly easygoing Lt. Thomas Hazlitt (Elias Escobedo), who is not happy to serve under his onetime girlfriend — or at least sex buddy.
These days Hazlitt is pitching woo to Dinah Blue (Matthew Martin), the cross-dressing chanteuse who’s the improbable star attraction at the Blue Parrot, KC’s “most cosmopolitan casbah.” S/he has “played all over the American empire,” singing classic melodies (Brecht/Weill, “Volare”) with lyrics updated to reflect the current conflict.
When the mission is about to launch, Dame has to retrieve Hazlitt from this den of gender-bending iniquity, much to her displeasure.
Stretching credulity, the gruff but genially world-weary Jessup ends up going to sample Dinah’s act and kinda bonding with Ms. Blue after a few drinks. He’s a disillusioned Humphrey Bogart to her gold-hearted adventuress in an exotic wartime hotspot — in the mold of Marlene Dietrich/Joan Crawford circa 1944. Duly naming favorite classic films in their banter, these characters’ scenes together are deft, fond semi-camp.
Yet they are intercut with “action” sequences that offer a straight-faced microcosm of U.S. blundering in Iraq. Sent to assassinate a dangerous insurgent, Dame, Thomas and two grunts (William J. Brown III, A.K. Conrad) get dropped via parachute into the wrong zone.
When it emerges the quartet’s intended target has been misidentified, Jessup realizes he’s sent his Marines into a death trap. Tale’s very silly climactic twist — which might have worked in a Charles Ludlum play, but doesn’t in this uneasily semi-serious context –has Dinah traipsing solo into the war zone desert disguised as a female Islamic fundamentalist.
The fond recall of 1940s silver-screen melodramas never really meshes with Operation Iraqi Freedom stuff, though both have their moments. Conrad and Brown, whose parts seem ill-defined at first, get hilarious scenes limning the hell-yeah, know-nothing spirit that many fear now dominates our military personnel.
Escobedo and Howard give committed performances in more fleshed-out roles. Fisher is a kick onstage, and as usual manages brisk pacing and clever effects on no budget as director. Martin wears an impressive retro wardrobe well, but falls short of the multilayered camp-yet-emotionally-focused grand dame archetype required here.
Even if Charles Busch had played the role, however, “Special Forces” would still have an awkward split personality: Half queer “Casablanca” homage, half American-policy-in-Iraq docudrama. Still, that disjunction itself is perversely interesting.