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November 12, 2008



‘Streamers’ displays a tough-minded timeliness

By Michael Kuchwara


NEW YORK – The setting may be America of four decades ago but there is something eerily topical about the Roundabout Theatre Company’s tough-minded, thoroughly engrossing revival of David Rabe’s “Streamers.”


Questions about race, violence, sexuality and fighting an unpopular war in a distant country are still with us, just as they were for four young soldiers in an Army barracks somewhere in Virginia in 1965.


Rabe’s play, which opened Tuesday at off-Broadway’s Laura Pels Theatre, has the specter of Vietnam hanging over these raw recruits as they try to make sense of their lives and deal with a fear of the unknown, particularly that possibility of being shipped off to Southeast Asia.


The playwright manages to create several memorable portraits of people caught up in a world they didn’t make and don’t quite understand.


The four are a convenient cross-section, starting with the enigmatic Billy, played by Brad Fleischer with just the right amount of inscrutability. He’s a Midwest kid from Wisconsin, who is not as open, clear-eyed and untroubled as he initially seems.


Complications are there, most dramatically in Billy’s relationship with upper-crust Richie, who is defiantly gay in a way that would surely get him kicked out of the Army of yesterday – and today. Yet Richie, in a showy, scene-stealing performance by Hale Appleman, has a sure sense of himself, flaws included, something the other soldiers don’t possess.


Then there’s Roger, a good-natured, go-with-the-flow kind of guy, the practical friend who tries to get along. He’s played with easy affability by J.D. Williams. Not so, Carlyle, a volatile man with a fierce temper. He’s the play’s catalyst for trouble and in Ato Essandoh’s fierce, genuinely unnerving portrait, Carlyle is an explosion waiting to happen.


These new soldiers are contrasted with the aging veterans, two gruff participants in past wars. As played by John Sharian and Larry Clarke, they display a macho camaraderie missing in the younger men. War and the possibility of dying is never far from their thoughts. It’s articulated most compelling in an explanation of the play’s title, when a parachute fails to open and a soldier plummets – or streams – to his death.


Rabe is a superb craftsman. He knows how to tell a story and build tension, a sense of suspense that director Scott Ellis carefully exploits in this production. Yet the playwright is also a lover of language, unafraid to give his characters lengthy speeches that veer into the poetic.


The most notable occurs at the end of the play when one of the old timers, beautifully played by Clarke, remembers how he once killed a particular enemy soldier. There is a sad, haunting quality to his memory, an almost wistful sense of regret that injects “Streamers,” and this fine production, with an even greater sense of theatricality.


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