Dogfight - Theatre Review

By Joshua Kahn

The talented young ensemble of After Hours Theatre Company attempts their biggest production yet with the spirited staging of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's Dogfight at the Hudson Theatre. The musical, based on the 1991 film of the same name, follows three young marines trawling for women on their last night in America before being shipped off to fight in Vietnam. But On the Town this isn't: while that older musical is also about three young servicemen looking for dates, the heroes of Dogfight have intentions that are much less pure. Eddie Birdlace and his somehow even more boorish friends, Boland and Bernstein (aka, The Three Bees) roam the streets of San Francisco on the hunt for unattractive women to bring to the titular "dogfight": a competition in which the soldier who brings the ugliest date gets a substantial cash prize. It's a cruel, intriguing premise...but it's one that makes it hard to wholly enjoy the time spent with our supposed heroes.

Boland and Bernstein are the kinds of semi-villainous foils audiences love to hate, especially when played with such gleeful vigor and comic chops by Spencer Strong Smith and Trent Mills, respectively. But Birdlace, whose journey we're supposed to be invested in, comes across as an anti-hero we're disappointed to hate. It can be hard to sympathize with a lead whose character arc seems to be merely going from unrepentant a**hole to repentant a**hole. Even his big, mournful, 11 o'clock number rings a tad false because of how most of his woes are self-created. And it's a shame too, because Payson Lewis brings much-needed nuance to Birdlace, skillfully finding the hypocrisies in the macho-man marine stereotype.

Unsurprisingly, the true star of the story turns out to be Rose, the innocent waitress Eddie dupes into entering the dogfight. Nicci Claspell plays her with a heart-breaking sincerity and unassuming charm that it's almost insulting that Eddie would consider her ugly enough to compete. After the truth of the dogfight comes out and Eddie and Rose's relationship deepens, we might find ourselves rooting for Rose's happiness over Eddie's, wishing to reach out and shake her and tell her to get away from that no-good jerk. This might be an interesting, compelling dynamic, but, unfortunately, Peter Duchan's book and/or Jennifer Strattan and Jennifer Oundjian's direction don't really engage in the more complex facets of the relationship. Instead, Eddie is primarily presented as an enigma and Rose withers as an amenable tool that Eddie can use to figure himself out.

These flaws are primarily with the musical itself, not at all with the terrific company and stagecraft on strong display. Apart from Rose and the Three Bees, the cast is rounded out by a strong ensemble, especially a fine comic turn by Emily Morris as Marcy, a sassy hooker Boland hires for the dogfight, and Peter Allen Vogt, who plays a handful of comedic bit parts. The cast is rounded out by an energetic and woefully underused ensemble, each member of which could easily anchor a show of their own. The wooden, bare-bones set looks great and functions beautifully, as do the period costumes. The music, by far the strongest aspect of the show as written, is terrific. It's plain to see how Pasek and Paul have since gone on to Oscar-winning success with La La Land and very possibly Tony success with current Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen. All these pros aside, though, After Hours' production struggles to wholly overcome the somewhat icky nature of the show's story. It's definitely an admirable, enjoyable production, if a bit emotionally detached.

See Dogfight at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre through June 25. 

Posted By Joshua Kahn on June 06, 2017 11:57 am | Permalink