In Media Theatre’s staging of DOGFIGHT, Victoria Mayo stars as Rose Fenny, as a young woman of intelligence and character chosen by a Marine, an admitted jerk and jarhead, to compete in a contest to see which Vietnam-bound grunt could invite the ugliest girl to a last-night-home party on November 21, 1963. . Her performance radiates so far past the Media stage, you want to jump on that stage, embrace Rose, and tell her she is a peach among flowerless trees and worthy of so much that she receives.
Jesse Cline’s production is solid and holds dramatic intensity throughout, but Mayo elevates a fine staging into one worth remembering. From the minute she is seen on stage, in her waitress uniform strumming a guitar and quietly singing a ballad she’s written, Mayo conveys warmth and the type of native goodness that cannot be faked and should not be mocked. Whatever emotion Rose has to express, Mayo finds the most natural and moving way to communicate it. She is not overt but subtle, and the simple ways in which Mayo’s Rose reacts, whether happy or disappointed, remains so ineluctably human, you forget you’re watching a performance and feel strongly for a girl who goes through a roller coaster of feelings in a few short hours. It’s a beautiful bit of acting and singing that can serve as a model for how to build and play a character on stage. Mayo gives DOGFIGHT heart that Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Peter Duchan’s work sorely needs if it isn’t going to seem crass for crass sake.
DOGFIGHT begins on JFK’s last full day of life, the last day of post-World Wat II America. This sentiment, and the escalating war in Vietnam, permeates what we see. Cline brings the war home with footage and a looming picture of LBJ. It is about tough men in a tough era. It. These are the guys before the Gulf of Tonkin escalation that are being shipped to Vietnam and advisers. Some are bound to among the early casualties of this sad war. Eddie Birdlace (played effectively by Zack Krajnyak) experiences something even sadder and more shameful when her returns from duty and is mistreated by people on the streets of San Francisco, his uniform disrespected, his service denigrated, and the ticker tape parade he hoped for the mere vestige of a veteran’s legitimate dream.
Krajnyak and all of the guys in DOGFIGHT find the right style, look, and sound for guys who always knew they were heading to the service after high school. There’s something gritty and tough about them. Krajnyak is good at showing Eddie’s inarticulateness when he’s not joshing with his buddies or conning Rose into a date. He maintains that silent attitude throughout the production, and that’s a legitimate choice, but Media’s DOGFIGHT would have been stronger and more savory if Krajnyak’s Eddie bent a little. You never see his transition. You see him attempting to be softer. You see him wanting to be. But the arc is never completed. It is realistic that something can hold Eddie back from giving in to his emotions and tenderer, more romantic side. Drama calls for some sign of the change.
At the party, when Eddie realizes he genuinely likes Rose, that she’s so thrilled to be on a real date, and that she is much too good for the situation in which he placed her, Krajnyak shows anger and irritation, but he doesn’t make it clear his rage is aimed at himself and his rude behavior. In a dinner scene, it’s interesting to see Eddie unable to just relax and be more than an image or more than the tough kid from Buffalo who only knows hard knocks, but it’s imperative some melting take place, and it’s disappointing when it doesn’t.
Krajnyak is excellent; his choices are not wrong; but I’d have preferred different, more texturing options. Unsavory though DOGFIGHT is in concept, Pasek and Paul write derivative yet moving music and offer better lyrics than most contemporary composing teams. Duchan’s book represents more of the hardscrabble nature of Birdlace’s buddies and others in his platoon. In addition to Mayo and Krajnyak, fine performances are given by J.P. Dunphy is a series of roles, Deborah Lynn Meier as a girl who knows the score and doesn’t mind winning an “ugly” contest, and Sarah J. Gafgen as the deadpan Ruth Two Bears. Katie Yamaguchi’s costumes are aces. Christopher Ertelt’s band sounded great. Greg Solomon’s lighting was effective, especially during the scene in Vietnam.
[Media Theatre, 104 E State Street, Media, PA] March 9-27, 2016; mediatheatre.org.