We still pay for the Vietnam War. Tracers, now playing at the Theatre on Broadway, gives us another window onto that experience.
A collaborative effort written by John DiFusco and seven other vets, the play is part group therapy, part high drama and part history lesson. The story takes seven men through basic training, on to 'Nam, and back to America. It's a multi-media performance that relies heavily on videotaped recordings of interviews with the vets later in life, and on taped news footage of the war. There's no plot, just a series of vignettes that show the men facing a variety of situations--sane and insane. The soldiers seem to be a collection of types--a nineteen-year-old intellectual, a tough guy, a patriot, a born leader and a troubled kid who dangles continually at the edge of his wits.
Because Tracers is a play and not a film, the violent titillation so fiercely present in Platoon and other movies is absent. We have the opportunity to think and feel without the distraction of gunfire, spurting blood and wrenching screams. The nature of the experience grips and tears us, but it never indulges our voyeuristic tendencies regarding violence.
And the truth is, Tracers has more to say than Platoon. It deals with such nonglamorous issues as the long periods of crushing boredom at the front, the hideous task of gathering up bodies to be shipped home, the daily irritations of men in constant close contact. It describes how the military sent ill-trained young men into battle with first-class weapons they didn't know how to use properly. Only one out of 100 Americans was a true warrior, we're told in one monologue: 10 percent were fighters, 80 percent were targets, and the rest should not have been there at all.
Period rock music, piped in almost constantly over the sound system, evokes the era (as it did in all the Vietnam flicks). Anyone who lived through that period instantly recalls what he or she thought about the war, the vets, the society, the radical breakdown of values--and it was all reflected in the music. Those rebellious sounds must have had a strong effect on men under orders. But while the songs may summon up the past for audience members who were alive and conscious at the time, it's uncertain what they say to younger people.
While Tracers is bound to mean more to those who grew to maturity during the Vietnam War, the play penetrates beyond its own themes, calling into question war itself and what it does to those dragged into it. Over and over again, the men anguish over killing people who were trying to kill them.
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Under Steven Tangedal's fine direction, the all-male cast turns out a moving ensemble theater piece. There are a few false notes; a few of the frenetic male-bonding episodes seem forced, and occasionally, attempts at revelation lapse into self-pity. The drug scenes are a tad tiresome, predictable and self-conscious. But as the players warm to the task, the performance grows stronger and stronger.
Reuben Harrell is a marvel of graceful military bearing and ferocious dignity as Sergeant Williams, the drill instructor; Ted Bettridge as Dinky Dau is all raw nerve endings barely baled together in a thin, angry skin. Josh Hartwell gives Baby San an amiable innocence that he gradually loses. Hack Hyland makes the patriot Little John believably honorable, and Timothy Salmans's Scooter is a biker in uniform. Particularly outstanding are performances by Byron Whitehorn as Habu, the one true warrior and leader, and Donald Ryan as the Herman Hesse-reading, teenage intellectual known as Professor.
The play concerns itself only with the experience of its G.I.s--the people of Vietnam are conspicuously absent. There are no political judgments or serious questioning of the ethics of American involvement. Instead, the writers stick to telling their own story of the nightmare that was Vietnam. Tracers is anecdotal and personal--and because of that, all the more powerful.
Tracers, through March 27 at the Theatre on Broadway. 13 South Broadway, 777-3292.