An anti-hero is a tough thing to pull off, but when done right, the rewards are rich. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Dogfight, the 2012 musical based on the 1991 film starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of emotion and human nature, and the result—especially with WaterTower Theatre’s luminous production—is truly beautiful.
Eddie Birdlace is a barely contained bottle rocket: testosterone, rage, and uncertainty all roiling beneath his Marine’s uniform, threatening to detonate the night before he ships out to Vietnam. It’s November 21, 1963, and this soldier is looking for a good time. But good doesn’t always mean pretty—he and his buddies decide to hold a “dogfight,” where the guy who brings the ugliest date to the party wins the prize money. Eddie meets Rose, a plump and pretty diner waitress with a love of folk music, and what at first seems like the ideal contestant turns out to be the woman who changes him forever.
The haunting and complex score lays a solid foundation—along with Peter Duchan’s time-skipping book—for a show that never goes where you expect. As Eddie, the strong-voiced Zak Reynolds alternates between cocky jerk and inexperienced boy. His fits of rage are nicely balanced with shy peeks at a young man desperate to make something of himself. Director Terry Martin yo-yos his audience with Eddie, making us sympathize with him one minute and despise him the next. It’s a deft bit of direction and performance, and ultimately what the show’s success hinges on.
When Rose (a nuanced and radiant Juliette Talley, cleverly costumed by Michael Robinson to appear more zaftig than she is) learns of the boys’ scheme and confronts Eddie, her explosive cry “You’re the ugly one, not me!” elicits spontaneous, heartfelt applause. This tendency to cut deeply instead of scratching the surface is what propels Dogfight from simply a period musical to a tale we can all learn from.
Memorable cameos from Beth Albright, as a sassy streetwalker, and Steve Barcus as a snooty waiter and chatty veteran (among other roles), meld with Kyle Igneczi and Matt Ransdell Jr. as Birdlace’s two macho Marine buddies. On Michael Sullivan’s blue-hued set, lit by Jason Foster’s striking design of shadows and harsh spotlights, we’re transported from San Francisco twilight to Vietnam in bloody mid-battle, with John de los Santos’ choreography channeling a ’60s vibe throughout (the party scene is especially well executed).
To quote Pasek and Paul, it’s all nothing short of wonderful.