Theater Review: Dysfunctions of Vietnam Return

Alexa J. Bush

Et (Alex S. Glasser ’06) embraces Maureen (Andrea Spillman ’07) while her Vietnam veteran husband Davy (Abe Riesman ’08) looks on apathetically.

The 2004 presidential campaign has confirmed that the Vietnam War is still a touchy subject for many Americans. Davey (Abe Riesman ’08) is a bit more touched than most. Guilt-stricken over his country’s role in Vietnam, the blinded veteran decides to bring the truth of the war home to his complacent middle-class parents by teaching them what it’s like to be a Vietnamese peasant: he orders them to pick up grains of minute rice from the floor while his wife fires gunshots randomly into the air (shooting him in process) and the maid breaks dishes.

This is a typical scene from The Vietnamization of New Jersey, Christopher Durang’s political and cultural satire of American morals and hypocrisy. The plot hardly matters, but goes something like this: Davey comes home from the war to his New Jersey parents, brother, and housekeeper, surprising them by bringing along his blind Vietnamese wife, Liat. No sooner does the family adjust to her presence and Davey’s repudiation of America than it is revealed that Davey’s father has been unemployed for five months and the family’s belongings have been repossessed. It is up to the family, with the help of an uncle in the army, to reclaim their house and keep Davey from immolating himself in political protest.

This is a play about people who care too much about others and those who care too little. Ozzie Ann (Chelsea Toder, Tufts ’07) beseeches her husband not to take his life—at least not on the carpet, where she will have to remove the stains. Et (Alex S. Glasser ’06), the only character who manages to keep his head, is also a horny 16-year-old juvenile delinquent who steals purses after his family is kicked out of the house. “She’s some woman,” he tells his mother, when she asks about the owner of one wallet. The primary uncaring figure, though, is Hazel (Andrew G. Sullivan ’06), the family’s colored maid, played by a white man in drag. A physically imposing woman—Sullivan is built like a football player—Hazel is just as likely to pull off the tablecloth as she is to sweep up the ensuing mess.

As Maureen, Davey’s Vietnamese wife who is actually from Schenectady, Andrea Spillman ’07 is a cheerful escapee from Vietnam whose eyes grow vacant as the play progresses and she retreats into a fantasy world. A former child prostitute now ogled and molested by her in-laws, Maureen finds America uncomfortably like the land she has just left. In a cutting satire of liberal guilt, the revelation of Maureen’s heritage sends Davey into a suicidal depression, leaving his wife to fend for herself. The play’s other victim is Harry (David B. Rochelson ’05), a mild-mannered businessman who cuts through the play’s apathy with a brief moment of genuine despair when no one tries to stop his suicide attempt. Rochelson is reincarnated in the second act as Larry, a drill sergeant who forces the family into a semblance of normality while ignoring its real problems.

The Vietnamization of New Jersey is lots of sound and fury, but the comedy and even the emotion isn’t in the chaos, it’s in the occasional clever lines surrounding it. The shouts of Toder and others certainly bring energy, but they spark less of Durang’s inspired lunacy and more memories of relatives picking awkward fights at Thanksgiving. The gunshots, yells, and moans of pain become something the viewer has to sit through in order to hear Et’s hilarious school play on American history (which includes such roles as “famous black person,” the inventor of peanuts) or the misanthropic priest Father McGillicutty (Benet Magnuson ’06) explain why God allows war (to prevent overpopulation from causing traffic jams). The show has its moments of humor and pathos, but the sustained tone is a discordant one that, while it does bring the feeling of being in a war zone, is not always pleasant to endure.

The play’s set design, by Benjamin J. Toff ’05, deserves mention for its ingenuity; Toff places TV sets around the stage, which at the appropriate moments show the actors performing additional mini-scenes or ’50s commercials that portray the American lifestyle that Durang parodies. Aside from their humor and thematic appropriateness, the TVs give the audience something to watch during scene changes.

—Reviewer Alexandra D. Hoffer can be reached at hoffer@fas.harvard.edu.