'Dogfight' review: Marines on an ugly mission before leaving the States

Originally published: July 16, 2014 12:41 PM
Updated: July 17, 2014 5:58 PM
By STEVE PARKS  steve.parks@newsday.com

Another war. Another American misadventure. But the fallout seems fresh as ever -- except for one crucial difference. This time, Americans don't blame the soldier.

Those who fought on the American side of the war in Vietnam were drafted. The Afghan and Iraqi wars were fought by volunteers, although these warriors were post-9/11 patriots or men and women with no better economic prospects -- or both.

What does that have to do with "Dogfight," the gritty 2012 Off-Broadway musical making its Long Island premiere at Cultural Arts Playhouse? When we meet the Marines who are about to be shipped over as military "advisers" to a country they mislocate as "near India," they have no idea what they're in for. Use whatever euphemism comes to mind -- every explicit term is deployed -- these Marines are single-minded about their last-night-Stateside mission.

Among them are the three Bees, if you go by their matching tattoos: Boland, Bernstein and Birdlace. They, along with company compatriots, ante up for a contest: The Marine who brings the ugliest date wins the pot.

Birdlace -- such a sweet-sounding name -- can't abide this game. On his "recruiting" mission, he lands at a diner where he meets Rose, a waitress who thinks she's too plump to attract men. When Birdlace escorts Rose to the party, he's embarrassed for her. Chaz Ocasio is a plausibly virginal Birdlace, with boyish face and voice, the latter drowned out on lower registers by Jon Riss' onstage orchestra that amplifies the Benj Pasek-Justin Paul score. (Ocasio, whom I saw on opening night, alternates in the role with Chris Saltalamacchio.)

As directed by Bruce Grossman, Alyson Rogers delivers a deeply sympathetic Rose, though we find her an unconvincing "dog." But that works, because Birdlace agrees. Jojo Minasi and Michael Marmann, as Birdlace's Marine buddies, embody the oddly innocent mean-spiritedness of their last night before harm's way, while Ashley Nicastro as the hired "date" who takes the prize exemplifies the cynicism of their endeavor.

For those of us with any sense of Vietnam War history, "Dogfight" is a leap too far. Marines deployed in 1963 did not return to be spit in the face by hippies. Are we to imagine Birdlace's tour was 10 years? Vietnam is still too recent for such revisionist treatment.

WHAT "Dogfight" by Peter Duchan, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

WHEN | WHERE Friday and Saturday nights at 8, Sunday at 7 p.m., through July 27, Cultural Arts Playhouse, 625 Old Country Rd., Plainview

INFO $20-$25; 516-694-3330, culturalartsplayhouse.com