With the war in Iraq rapidly deteriorating into a farcical nightmare, it must have seemed a bright idea to revive Christopher Durang's nightmarish farce about a quintessential American family that goes to pieces when their soldier son returns home wounded from Vietnam.
With the war in Iraq rapidly deteriorating into a farcical nightmare, it must have seemed a bright idea to revive Christopher Durang’s nightmarish farce about a quintessential American family that goes to pieces when their soldier son returns home wounded from Vietnam. But “The Vietnamization of New Jersey: A American Tragedy,” presented by Yale Repertory Theater in 1977 when the scribe was still a student, is a sophomoric work that brings tears (of discomfort, not laughter) to the eyes and groans of sympathy for performers who are knocking themselves out for nothing.
Like that adorable teapot song you performed on your first day of kindergarten, some works of theatrical art belong in their historical context and should never be revisited outside an institution of learning. Durang’s collegiate effort could well be one of them.
The play has more source references than a master’s thesis in lit crit. The comic style of the material — broad parody, with free-for-all elements of absurdist farce — owes more to the loose TV sketch-comedy model popularized in the 1970s by “Saturday Night Live” than it does to the more structured theatrical anarchy of Joe Orton or Alfred Jarry.
Despite its stylistic affinities with TV models, the play takes its subject and theme from two theatrical sources, “The Skin of Our Teeth,” Thornton Wilder’s 1943 apocalyptic vision of American civilization going to hell in a handbasket, and David Rabe’s 1972 antiwar drama “Sticks and Bones.”
Durang’s comedy is an out-and-out parody of Rabe’s play, in which a blinded Vietnam war vet returns home to shatter the composure of his morally obtuse parents, named Ozzie and Harriet after those ultimate parental icons. In Rabe’s version, the family is in moral denial, agonizing over the stranger their son David has become, while David retreats into his private hell, haunted by the judgmental ghost of a Vietnamese woman.
In Durang’s irreverent revision, the political message is played strictly for laughs.
Blind war hero David (Corey Sullivan) stumbles through the front door with his blind Vietnamese wife, Liat (Susan Gross), who turns into a sexpot and seduces David’s horny teenaged brother, Et (Nick Westrate). Father Harry (Frank Deal) buries his head in his newspaper so he won’t have to acknowledge David’s foreign bride. (“He’s brought the enemy into the house.”) And far from being the cool, competent model mom of the TV sitcom, Ozzie Ann teeters on the edge of insanity, a mental balancing act nicely sustained by Blanche Baker.
Only Hazel the saucy maid — a sendup of Sabrina, the life force in “The Skin of Our Teeth” — maintains her equilibrium in a world rapidly spinning out of control. Played with verve by James Duane Polk, who is fetching in his maid’s uniform, Hazel holds the household together.
But as time lurches on, the protective walls of this perfect American household (a wonderland of kitsch in Amanda Rehbein’s set design) literally come down around the family’s head. Harry loses his job and commits suicide. David embraces Buddhism and commits suicide. And when Harry’s brother Larry (Deal again) arrives to take command of the situation, this soldier of fortune turns the place into an armed military camp.
Although much of Durang’s parody is clever on the page, it isn’t very funny in performance. Lacking a real taste for political satire, his vision focuses on ludicrous surface details and misses the true satirist’s savage comic bite.