Photo Joan Marcus
Nancy Savoca’s 1991 movie Dogfight has a startlingly mean premise: Marines about to ship out to Vietnam in 1963 have a contest where they see who can bring the worst-looking date to a dance. Needless to say, there are all kinds of traps in a story like this, not least in the area of casting. On the commentary track of the DVD, Savoca mentions how horrified she was on the day she auditioned actresses for the party scene: “I am admitting to these women that I find them less than attractive,” she realized. But Savoca was sensitive enough to get her actresses on her side, and in her leads, River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, she had two gifted performers who were working at the height of their creativity. What she got from Phoenix and Taylor, in fact, still feels somewhat miraculous. They both dodge every nasty or clichéd beat that this story might have held, and instead create two characters who, though stuck in their own gender roles and physical types, somehow manage to reach out to each other.
For anyone who has seen Savoca’s Dogfight (there aren’t too many, but the film has a small, devoted cult), this musicalization is bound to be a disappointment. (Through August 19.) The show’s musical Rose, played by Lindsay Mendez, sings her heart out in several numbers that revel in the lowest kind of self-pity. When Lili Taylor’s Rose found out about the contest, she was devastated, and we were devastated for her because she was so obviously sensitive. What was fascinating about the way the story proceeded was that we were made to realize that Rose was fairly tough and resilient, whereas Phoenix’s hard-ass Birdlace was actually totally lost and vulnerable underneath his macho act. Woefully, in this musical, when Rose finds out about the contest, her reaction gets lost in a number for another character, Marcy (Annaleigh Ashford), who repeatedly sings the word “Dogfight!” while bringing Rose into a clumsy kind of cynical empowerment about their situation.
This is just one of the drastic mistakes the creators of this show have made with the delicate material. Derek Klena’s Birdlace is played so vaguely that we never know what he actually feels about Rose from moment to moment, and the lyrics to the songs are musical boilerplate (yes, they decide to rhyme “pound” and “found”). Mendez looks almost exactly like Taylor did, but she’s a very different emotional type; toward the end of the show, it’s clear that Mendez’s strengths lie in her tight comedic timing, not the kind of plaintive emotion Taylor found in Rose. At every point of this evening, I found myself dismayed at how this musical took the story of the film and made it as conventional as possible, right up to the ending. The ending of Savoca’s Dogfight is unforgettable because it’s powerfully ambiguous. The conclusion of this Dogfight is as on the nose as the rest of it, and as unnecessary.