Playwright: Evan Smith
At: Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont
Phone: (773) 883-1090
Runs through: March 2
BY RICK REED
World War II meets Will & Grace in the Bailiwick's latest offering. First produced off-Broadway, Servicemen explores the love between a gay man and a straight woman, both of whom have too much time on their hands (due to the woman's cartographer husband's income; he's off at war), and use their idleness to drink, smoke, and compete for the affections of servicemen. Cyn (short of Cynthia, but no less a metaphor) is cynical, horny, and demanding. Her constant companion, Gray, shares her cynical view, her love for vice, and is happy to carouse around Manhattan with her, vying for the attention of men. The subtext is that both are unhappy souls, and their bitter, and often funny, repartee belies a quiet desperation for love. By the play's end, predictably, both realize that the most significant relationship in their lives is the love that they share for each other, a love thwarted by the impossibility of a physical connection.
Playwright Smith's view of 1940s America, and how gay people lived at the time, is refreshing to see (and the swing and jazz music with which the Bailiwick underscores the period is authentic). Albeit set in New York City, where views were apt to be more forgiving, we nevertheless see how hidden the lives of homosexuals were. And we also witness the military's disdain for men who love men, which hasn't changed much. Gray avoids the draft by telling the induction officer about his predilection for sucking cock.
Cyn and Gray's competitiveness comes to the fore when they both meet an 18-year-old sailor named Si (a carefully nuanced and naturalistic performance by Jason Palmer). It becomes gradually obvious that Si is more attracted to Gray, and this attraction results in a sexual encounter that the inexperienced boy immediately perceives as love. Gray pushes the boy away and, by doing so, sets in motion his own salvation.
Servicemen is a simple play, not exactly rich in plot, but boasting a wealth of solid character development and crisp, believable dialogue. Unfortunately, Bailiwick's production, under the stiff direction of Jeff Jones, serves the material only in the most mediocre way. Servicemen needs strong performances, and, other than that of Jason Palmer, and to a lesser degree, Thad Anzur's Gray, the performances are, at best, community theater level. Cate Mannion's Cyn is stiff and wooden, and Ed Jones' (so good in Hell in a Handbag's current production, Poseidon, An Upside Down Musical) portrayal of a drag queen fails because his lip-synching turns as Carmen Miranda, Marlene Dietrich, and others, is embarrassingly unconvincing, adding little to the play's texture. When Jones gets to be a real human being, he improves dramatically. The pacing is, for the most part, leaden; scenes move along slowly and clumsily, rather than with the crisp-cut vignettes the script intends.
Is Servicemen worth seeing? Not really. Its freshness springs from its juxtaposition of homosexuality and a period when America pretended queers didn't exist. The story itself lacks conflict, and is more a situation than a fully fleshed-out piece. Yet, Bailiwick is moving in the right direction in attempting to produce works that deal on a more serious level with gay issues.