In "G.R. Point," which came to the Playhouse last night, David Berry has written about the close, day-to-day life of the members of a Graves Registration unit in the Vietnam "boonies," a post in the thick of a senseless war yet somehow detached. It is a small play and as much of a formula piece as "Journey's End," though much more explicit in its language and action, and it wins its points with small strokes. But the production staged by William Devane makes the mistake of trying to blow it up out of scale, and it suffers.
The author, as miniaturist, is showing us the war in microcosm, much as the novel "A Walk in the Sun" dealt with World War II. We understand that so there is no need to emphasize it. But this production does, first with sound effects (the big one is the chop-chop of a helicopter that seems to pass over our heads at the beginning and end), but most disturbingly with a setting dominated by a curved and steeply-raked, ocher-colored section of foam rubber. This is supposed to represent the desolate, defoliated, deeply-furrowed landscape, but it resembles nothing so much as a huge wrinkled trampoline, and the actors are forever scampering up and down it or settling in various spots along its surface. Stretched out across the full stage, it seems like a monumental blunder. We are grateful whenever the action returns to the stage level, to the semblance of an office and of a barracks tucked beneath it at either side. The simple Phoenix production accorded the play early last season was much more in keeping.
All is not lost, however. Michael Moriarty, who is starred, is riveting as Micah Bradstreet, the well-educated and civilized Maine youth of good family who arrives on the scene to put in his year's tour and to remain undefiled. Micah, of course, becomes the most bloodthirsty of the lot, sexually stimulated in his first firefight and, finally, thoroughly shaken when he must return home to bury the mother to whom he carefully and sadistically has written all the shocking details of his experience ("I'm just letting her know who I am" is his excuse). This is a finely balanced performance, crisp and cool and moving.
The controlled insanity that characterizes men long in a combat zone, and especially men who are part of a war that completely eludes them, is ably defined by the other players, too, even though their roles are cliches in most respects. Howard E. Rollins Jr. is persuasive as the sergeant who sells, among other things, pictures he has taken of the grotesque corpses, or parts thereof, he has come across the morning after a battle. Michael Jeter, Lazaro Perez, Mansoor Najee-Ullah, Brent Jennings and Mark Jenkins (though he must say, "Life is a journey and journeys are rough") play contrasting types of GIs. Paul Espel is the caricature of a lieutenant who is mainly interested in volley ball, and Lori Tan Chinn repeats her Phoenix role of the unit's mama-san, a worn Vietnamese woman who serves as a handywoman and also as a sex partner when needed.
The play covers the period from April through November, 1969 in many short takes with a single intermission. It is obviously drawn from experience, and well drawn in its modest way. And perhaps I shouldn't scoff at its cliches or use such a term as "caricature" after all, for soldiers in a combat zone often adopt the bold outlines of caricatures, if only for their own protection and to find (especially the younger ones) an identity in the midst of chaos.
It is curious how little notice our theater and cinema took of the Vietnam war when we were still fighting it. The musical Hair was one of its few prominent theatrical mentions in theatrical dispatches. Nowadays, when Vietnam is not news, it has become art.
Few plays on Vietnam will, I suspect, prove as compulsive as David Berry's G.R. Point, which opened at the Playhouse Theater last night. It is the story of one man's journey into hell and back. And yet it was a journey from which you never returned.
The man on the journey, facing fate with blinkered shoulders and shrugging eyes, is Micah, played with bewildered, soft-toned passion by Michael Moriarty, giving the best performance, so far, of his career. He arrives in Vietnam as a bright, patrician neophyte - he leaves as a tortured, cynical Vet. Yet he has learned something.
Incidentally, I learned something too about playmaking. Almost precisely two years ago Berry's play was first given in New York by the Phoenix Theater, following an earlier staged reading by the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theater Center.
I saw it at the Phoenix, excellently staged and cast. And it disappointed me to some extent. Then it seemed overconcerned with the depressingly obvious premise that war is hell.
William Devane, the new director, takes a quite different slant to the play, and it is a slant with an insight that gives the theme perfect credibility. Instead of concentrating on Vietnam and its horrors, Devane is totally intent on giving us this traumatic incident in the hero's autobiography. Everything is projected through his eyes.
Micah/Moriarty (and the identification between the actor and the role is so dangerously close that Moriarty at times seems like a civilian amid a platoon of actors) grows up in eight fearsome months. He finds himself, and he finds compassion. He is like Tamino in The Magic Flute - although Vietnam offered no Paminas - going through tests of fire and water through to awareness.
Micah arrives at a unit called Grave Registration. Its purpose is to gather bodies - or what is left of them - for transmission home. It is a sordid, dirty, necessary business. It savors little of idealism.
Micah is a New England non-conformist, rich in family tradition and prejudice. And he lands, inelegantly, on this hill in Vietnam. He is meeting with racial prejudice, the need for survival, and the very facts of war, all at once.
Engaged suddenly in a skirmish, he finds himself killing. He even finds part of himself enjoying killing. He even finds himself buying pornographic pictures of slaughter from a cool, super-cool black Sergeant who can walk through war like a headless god.
He finds friends, he questions attitudes, he discovers himself. It is an interesting play not simply because of its background, but more because of the way it demonstrates the impact, both sudden and delayed, of war upon the sensitive man. The man to whom war is not first nature or even second. Its horror, and also, its beguiling touch of glamor.
Devane has directed the play with a sure thrust to the bloody jugular of its purpose. Peter Larkin's scenery, an upturned moon-crater of serried orange rubber, resembles nothing quite on earth, will do as a cycle in hell, and with its realistic additions at each end, serves the play practically as well as it does emotionally.
The performance, which I saw at the final preview, could not be bettered. Moriarty, with his dreamstruck eyes and softly manic manner, has found a perfect part for himself. But his colleagues are also equally involved and equally perfect.
The performances were all handsomely graduated, all of them realistic but purposively theatrical.
A small notice is at loss with such a large cast - all equally worthy of discovery and description. Let me list them as an alphabetical honor roll: Lori Tann Chinn, Paul Espel, Mark Jenkins, Brent Jennings, Michael Jeter, Mansoor Najee-ullah, Lazaro Perez, and Howard Rollins, Jr.
This is a play that makes the Vietnam you wanted to die, live. Yet it is not pessimistic. It is the story of a man coming to terms with life in a dirty world at an ugly time. It could have been you.
There is one stretch of strong and effective writing in "G.R. Point," a play about American soldiers in the Vietnam War. It comes at the end of the first act and it portrays the pathology of battle fatigue in two men who have come out of a fire fight.
Nothing else in David Berry's play, which was performed Off Broadway two years ago and which opened on Broadway last night in a production at the Playhouse Theater, comes up to this scene.
The production, which originated at Baltimore's Center Stage, makes lavish use of sound and light effects to simulate battles. It uses a striking set, fashioned out of what seems to be brick-colored foam rubber, to approximate a devastated countryside. It has a cast of mixed abilities, headed by Michael Moriarty.
Despite this expansion of the original production, there is no disguising the fact that Mr. Berry's play, for all its recent detail, is very much an old-style war melodrama whose devices seem both weak and stilted.
Using the eight members of a graves-registration unit as a microcosm, it attempts to portray the effect of war upon those who fight it.
The unit is aptly chosen to illustrate the particular kind of futile horror of this particular war. Stationed in the front lines, and frequently a part of the fighting, its main function is to assemble bodies and their possessions and prepare them for shipment back to the rear.
The play tells of the arrival of a new member of the unit, his initiation into its brutal situation and into the peculiar fellowship that has grown up to cope with it, and of his own particular resistances and accomodations.
The fellowship has its interest. Micah, the languid Yankee puritan, with 300 years of traceable bloodlines with an Amherst education, is instructed by the others: two blacks, a Greek-American, a Puerto Rican and a hillbilly. Over them is an asinine lieutenant and a brutal, scheming black sergeant; but one of the first laws of the fellowship is that superiors don't count.
The first and only law of survival is to become part of the group. Micah accepts the first hurdle - a communal pot-smoking that binds them together - but he has more trouble accepting the fiercer emotional demands of comradeship. His tutor is Zan, the Greek - the immigrant instructs the Yankee - but it is a hard course of instruction; and it is not clear at the play's end that this bland, introverted, clammy protagonist has really learned much.
It is one of the play's defects. There is some life in the other members of the group, but the central character is a blank. Things happen to him, but they don't make much of an impression. And there is a tendency for all of them to lose reality when they open their mouths.
Zan, trying to bring Micah out, reproaches him with: "What is your priority? Building walls to keep people out?" To which Micah replies: "Who the hell gave you an admission ticket to my mind?"
Too much of the action consists of relentlessly glib and witty byplay among the soldiers in the unit. They are always on, always reacting, always ready with lines that announce who they are and what they are after. Sometimes, after Micah has come out with some particularly wet remark, they burst into song, mocking him. This might work once, but after the third or fourth time, it is nothing but comic stuffing, clearly designed to balance the grimness.
The staginess is heightened by the use of a cartoon lieutenant, concerned only with the unit's performance at volleyball, and of an everpresent Vietnamese woman camp follower who is being cute part of the time, degraded the rest of the time, and dramatically unsufferable all of the time.
The best part of the play shows Micah and one of the black soldiers, Shoulders, returning from a gruesome fire fight. Shoulders, played with great power by Mansoor Najee-Ullah, is in a state of frightening hilarity, coiled tight as a spring, dangerous and in clear agony.
Micah is cool and matter-of-fact, and this is even more frightening. Mr. Berry has contrived a remarkable scene in which the others move uneasily away, leaving Zan to defuse Micah's deathly silence.
Michael Moriarty is brilliant here as a clogged emotional vessel beginning to open. He paces and moves his arms in an increasingly uncontrolled style, as he begins to relate jagged pieces of the horror he has seen.
Elsewhere Mr. Moriarty, though always interesting, is less effective. Perhaps he succeeds too thoroughly in making a mannered and unpleasant character out of Micah. Perhaps he overdoes Micah's irritating quality; in any case there are too many nuances, too many subtle shifts of facial expression, too much visible taking thought in proportion to the very limited amount of intellectual and emotional clarity that actually emerges.
Of the others, Michael Jeter is very moving as the high-strung hillbilly, Howard E. Rollins Jr. is sinister and subtle as the sergeant, and Brent Jennings is fluid and captivating as K.P., one of the black soldiers. Paul Espel mugs grossly as the lieutenant and Lori Tan Chinn is so taken up with her bobbings and moues and pigeon English that she seems to be performing in a play of her own.
Director William Devane has managed a tense rhythm most of the time. The lighting is by Neil Peter Jampolis and Jane Reisman and it is not entirely a compliment to say that it is a show by itself.