nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 12, 2008
Streamers, a play written by David Rabe in the mid-1970s, takes place in an army barracks in Virginia in 1965. Three enlisted men, waiting for possible orders that will send them to Vietnam or elsewhere, share this particular room, and together they're a kind of cross-section of young American manhood: Roger is an African American striving mightily for acceptance via conformity; Richie is an urban sophisticate used to getting what he wants, unabashedly flamboyant and apparently gay; and Billy is a Midwesterner, smarter than he lets on, honestly insecure about and afraid of going into battle.
Into their midst lurch, occasionally, two Sergeants, Rooney and Cokes, old friends from service in two prior wars. These men—always drunk when we meet them—project an oddly Peter Pan-ish war-as-an-awfully-thrilling-adventure sort of exuberance as they reminisce giddily and nostalgically about the good ol' days when brave men sang a song ("Beautiful Streamers," to the tune of a Stephen Foster melody) when they knew they were about to die because their parachutes failed to open.
Our three soldiers also welcome, tentatively, a stranger into their room. His name is Carlyle, and he's an African American of very different stripe from Roger—poorly educated, raised on the streets, surviving on brute strength and instinct. The throughline of Streamers pits Carlyle against Roger, Billy, and Richie—symbolic, one imagines, of the struggle of Civil Rights Era blacks to negotiate their way into a society that had sidelined them for more than a century. The result of this conflict turns out to be joltingly violent; inevitably so, though little that happens in the play's first act adequately prepares us, especially from a distance of 40 years, for the jarring climax in Act Two.
I suspect that Streamers can be a compelling drama, and apparently it was when it first was produced on Broadway. But Scott Ellis's limpid revival for Roundabout Theatre Company mostly reveals the piece to be dated and awkward; why anyone thought this play has something resonant to say to 2008 audiences remains elusive. Rabe follows two main tracks in his text as he pits Carlyle the perpetual outsider against Roger, Richie, and Billy—one that is based in racial politics, another that trades in sexual politics. The race angle is the one that Rabe develops more, but Ellis's production is all about sex, much to its detriment. The central mystery of the play becomes whether Billy is gay (as Richie suspects) or not (as Billy himself claims). In the end, it doesn't prove to matter one whit; what matters instead is why and how a supposedly civilized country like America can still produce a man like Carlyle who knows no options beyond brute force (and the chorus of Sergeants Rooney and Cokes reinforces this thematic idea). But Ellis barely scratches the surface of this concept, devoting his and his company's energy to manifestations of homosexual panic that utterly overwhelm the play.
The production sports a strong naturalistic design by Neil Patel (set), Tom Broecker (costume), and Jeff Croiter (lighting) that often serves to underline the lapses in logic that crop up in Rabe's writing and/or Ellis's staging. We wonder, for example, how Roger can exit his room wearing shorts and a t-shirt and return, presumably in real time, wearing long pants and a loud-patterned shirt.
More troubling is the fact that the military, as presented here, seems as lax and anarchic as the version presented in the old Phil Silvers Sgt. Bilko show on TV: do enlisted men really get to come and go (during wartime!) as casually as these men seem to? Is there no commanding officer? No medical personnel? Rabe's point doesn't seem to be to indict the U.S. Army in particular here, but the main takeaway I had from Streamers is that at least in 1965 it appeared to be run by a passel of incompetents.
Ellis's cast is uneven and probably hampered by his tunnel-vision take on the play as being principally about homophobia. Ato Essandoh runs the gamut as the very troubled Carlyle, but I still didn't sense that he has found his way fully into this character. JD Williams seems to be playing just at Roger's surface; I didn't get a feel for who he really is or what makes him tick. Hale Appleman's Richie pulls focus almost all the time he's on stage, for better or (mostly, I think) for worse. Brad Fleischer's Billy is entirely a cipher. Larry Clarke and John Sharian only hint at the weird majesty of the two Sergeants; it's not until the end of the play that you fully understand how central they are to its meaning, but by then it's too late for them to make a significant impression.
Written and produced after the Vietnam War, Streamers is not a war play at all, it just happens to take place among soldiers. But I know that I was expecting this follow-up to Sticks and Bones to be an anti-war play, something that might fit the mood of a country that has just resoundingly rejected our current long-running conflict in Iraq. So the issues that pervade Streamers don't speak directly to our present state of mind, except in the most abstract fashion. I wonder if the Roundabout hasn't poorly served its audience and its artists by miscalculating the timeliness of this particular play at this particular moment.