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AT THE AGE of twelve when most of us were hovering between war games and romance as our major obsessions there was a guy three or four years older who drifted into my acquaintance because we were the only people in the neighborhood that would still tolerate a fascination for the military life. Maybe it was because the mountain we lived on was only a few miles from West Point and littered from top to bottom with retired Generals and younger, still ambitious, officers, but Ronny had set his sights on an army career as if it were to be his personal salvation--and only hope for it. I haven't seen Ronny since then but heard over Christmas that he was well on the way to his destiny. He joined the army as soon as he could and has since been rejected by West Point three times. Although he might never be an officer, he still has his future as a lifer in the Regular Army or "R.A." as he most likely calls it.
There was no way to escape the memory of Ronny in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel not just because of the similarity between him and Pavlo but because this play is a head-on collision with the past ten years. Out of a haze, 1966, which was AM radio in a warm spring, walks up dressed in army fatigues and presses its bayonet against your belly.
Author David Rabe has written a play on the war in Vietnam that defies a million slogans to become a contemporary masterpiece. Pavlo Hummel is an innocuous little guy from 231 East 45th Street, Manhattan, who with the beginning of his basic training is on the way to becoming "the fattest rat in the finest cheese." Lost in the big world, Pavlo has adopted army standards and has committed himself to a pathetic struggle to meet them. Fresh from his overwhelming success as the son in the Godfather, Al Pacino gives a performance that can have no equal. "You're weird, Hummel," Kress, the squad bully tells him. "You don't even talk American, you talk Hummel--some god damned foreign language." And Pacino acts his own language, with a nuance and virtuosity that is wonderful.
GUSTAVE JOHNSON is Ardell, the cool uniformed black who is Hummel's mentor and friend, a shadowy figure counselling him through the play's series of flashbacks and burying him at their end. He and Walter Lott the flamboyant drill Sergeant, Barry Saider the bully and Richard Lynch the maimed hospital patient, give performances that stand out in the excellent supporting cast. Director David Wheeler stages the play without a pretention of proscenium--as if it were in his living room--and after 60 productions with the Theatre Company it might as well be. Set designer John Thornton has divided the thrust stage with a diagonal ramp into an upper and lower platform--everything from marching squads to jungle fights and a Saigon saloon fit on it so it must be good.
What is most remarkable about the play is how effortlessly Rabe goes beyond the war and what is obvious to proceed with the personal story of Pavlo Hummel. It baffles classification and makes world war two dramas like Arthur Laurent's Home of the Brave look like a Yank comic strip. For Hummel the army world is his only hope for salvation, the only remedy for his fatherlessness. And in a way he makes it his salvation. Home on a furlough, his pink-suited, mod half-brother treats him with the mild contempt he always has until Hummel explodes. "Look at me! I'm different! I used to be an asshole, I'm not an asshole anymore!" But Pavlo abandons himself totally and blindly to the military ethic that has finally given him a positive identity--so that he becomes a maniac of the battlefield and brothel. He swaggers blustering until a soldier he bullied throws a hand grenade that wounds him fatally. What do you think of those people who say that soldiers are robots, animals, Argall asks. "They shit," Pavlo replies. Like him they will admit only one morality and dehumanize all who fail to fit. They are just as insensitive as he in their unwillingness to recognize the multiplicity of values and tolerate them.
The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel might not be perfect. This production is long--it includes some of the material cut out for New York--and it might lack some of the intensity of a more limited drama. But each scene is so interesting and the whole texture of the play is so rich with its cadence counts, lap-hopping whores and old rock songs that it's impossible to say what should be deleted. Rabe's too sweet a talker. And anyone who can make 1966 eerie and fascinating shouldn't be tampered with.
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