Off the Mark
Southwark Playhouse | London
directed by John Haidar
Steven Dietz’s play Last of the Boys explores the effects of the Vietnam War thirty years later on two American veterans, friends Ben and Jeeter – and Jeeter’s brand new girlfriend – and her mother. If that sounds like a bit of a random selection of people, well… it is. The initial dialogue between brooding Ben and upbeat Jeeter is very promising. It is warm, funny and authentic, with an intriguing setup: Jeeter has just returned from Ben’s father’s funeral (which Ben did not attend) and is visiting Ben at his dilapidated trailer home, where he is the only one left – quite literally the last of the boys.
However, when Jeeter’s mysterious new girlfriend Sal (Zoë Tapper) turns up, things start to go downhill. Firstly, both Sal and her mother (Wendy Nottingham) are horribly clichéd characters: the “off the rails” young woman with daddy issues and a seemingly uncaring alcoholic mother. I hoped there might be some depth to them later in the play, but unfortunately they remain pretty flat, especially in comparison to the complexity of the two male leads. And their reasons for being present at Ben and Jeeter’s reunion feel tenuous at best; at other times, awfully contrived. For example, at the moment Sal’s mother goes back to the airport and Jeeter brings her back. Why on earth would she want to come back, and why do they even want her there? It all feels a little implausible; and it doesn’t help that both women seem to be lumbered with some clumsy lines that make their characters feel pretty unrealistic.
Then there are the bizarre segues where Ben seems to embody Robert McNamara, a US Secretary of Defence who played a large role in escalating the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. It is unclear whether this is supposed to be a ghostly experience or the product of Ben’s traumatised mind, but the clarity becomes further confused when Sal interacts with Ben’s McNamara and the soldier who accompanies him on these scenes (Cavan Clarke). The larger scale politics brought in during these scenes can be tricky to follow and feels at odds with Ben and Jeeter’s experience as soldiers. Although the characters would have undoubtedly had an understanding of the politics at play, I suspect that these are the wrong characters to explore such questions. Ben and Jeeter are best when they portray the complicated friendship of veterans and discuss the harsh realities of being a soldier. The two friends recalling the occasion a mother begged to be shot with her son is particularly moving.
A special mention should go to Jonathan Rhodes who stood in as Ben at the performance I watched. He had a script on stage with him and took a little time to get into the character, but by the end he was truly outstanding and I’d forgotten the script was even there. The dynamic between him and Todd Boyce, who is hilarious and versatile as Jeeter, feels very real – a particular achievement given that they had just hours to create it.
Max Dorey’s design is beautifully authentic and evokes a strong sense of location, with a real beat-up trailer and bark chipping underfoot. However, the realism of this, combined with the overdramatic and overused sound (Max Perryment), has a distancing effect. It is hard to really connect with what is going on as it is – the design doesn’t help.
Steven Dietz’s work is most popular in the US (he is in the top ten most produced playwrights over there) and I’m willing to accept that it might be more accessible to audiences there. It just doesn’t have the same cultural resonance in front of a British audience and ends up quite confusing. I would have much rather watched two hours of Ben and Jeeter reminiscing on the war, where I may have connected better with both characters and not got so lost. John Haidar’s production is certainly ambitious and has moments of real poignancy, but overall doesn’t quite hit the mark.
photo | ©Ben Broomfield