Strong stuff and rending enough, this compact Vietnam war drama "The Boys of Winter." But haven't we been over this ground before, most recently in the brilliant "Tracers," a superb distillation by and with vets?
True, this 95-minute work by John Pielmeier ("Agnes of God") is more graphic in depicting the horrors. But all Pielmeier is really saying is that war is hell or as he puts it at one point, "We all have little My Lais in the corners of our souls."
Reminders of this and other horrors of the century are surely in order, but the author has written a more-or-less conventional slice-of-life, or slice-of-death, drama about a doomed platoon near the Laotian border over the Christmas period in 1968. Plot details are related in monologues; otherwise, the air is filled with rough soldier talk, ribald soldier jokes, and sudden flareups.
The company, which includes film star Matt Dillon, is adequate in the main. But I'd also like to remark that Pielmeier's plotless drama, in common with they many other plays about GIs in Vietnam, never traces the My Lai killings and other dehumanization back to the lessons learned from the North Vietnamese.
Some plays are made in Heaven. Some are fabricated in Hell. The Boys of Winter, opening last night at the Biltmore, was forged in the Hell of Vietnam - and for most of the time, the forgery shows.
The Vietnam War - that "dirty little war," as the old song put it - was a traumatic experience for the entire nation, and the wounds inflicted have probably yet to be fully exposed and explored. Or healed.
At the time comparatively few plays emerged from it - more recently we have had Dispatches, a docudrama, and Tracers, a remarkable play written and performed by Vietnam vets themselves.
Both plays - Dispatches has only been seen at Britain's National Theater so far - have the stench-like whiff of real experience to them.
The Boys of Winter, specifically commissioned from John Pielmeier, who a few seasons back gave us that effective melodramaAgnes of God, has a contrived, fabricated air to it.
It is doubtless rooted in reality, but the reality seems second-hand, the pain once removed, and the sentiments more literary and perhaps moralistic than is usually called for by the immediacy of pain.
Also - as was Agnes of God - it is sensationallist play, and its director, Michael Lindsay Hogg as before, hits hard at every sensation offered.
A platoon of Marines is on a mission in South Vietnam around Christmas Day in 1968. Led by an American Indian Lieutenant, experienced in the ways of jungle warfare, and a veteran but shellshocked Sergeant, the whole platton, cut off from base by wireless failure, is virtually wiped out.
The sole survivor is the Lieutenant. He makes it back, apparently goes beserk on his return, and kills seven Vietnamese civilians in cold blood - five women, including his own girlfriend, and two young boys.
Shades of the My Lai massacre, and Mr. Pielmeier goes out of his way to draw the comparison. At one point of his Marines says: "We all had some little My Lai in the corner of our souls."
Pielmeier's contention is that his fictional Lt. Bonney, like, presumably My Lai's Lt. Calley, was not responsible for his actions - and at one point he places the blame squarely on on the shoulders of: "President Kenedy, President Johnson, General Westmoreland, and John Wayne." And us in the audience.
The guilt, such it is, would have to be subject to far more sophisticated discussion than Mr. Pielmeier offers here, and it would be interesting to widen the argument to include Hitler's SS and Attila the Hum.
Not Every American officer in Vietnam behaved like Lt. Calley or Pielmeier's fictional hero.
But Mr. Pielmeier gives very little indication that he really knows what he is doing - other than knocking together some kind of play about Vietnam, full of blood, horror, and guilt.
He stresses the sexual glamor of war and bloodshed, of comradeship and masoschism, in a manner that might be regarded as journalistically romantic, or death seen from a deranged pyschoanalyst's couch.
The play is full of nothing and action. People are killed, which is the action, but there is no motivation or real character, which is the nothing.
Some attempt is made to equate the American fighting in Vietnam with the genocide of the American Indian - the most interesting, indeed the only interesting phillosophical cliche raised - and a contrast is drawn between the resllience of the Vietnamese and the decadence of the Americans.
Structually the play is one prolonged battle against the unseen Vietcong -with each Marine in turn coming out fromt stage to offer a soliloquy on the lines of what he might have said at Bonney's court-martial had he been alive at the time to speak out.
None of the remarks will strike anyone but the most sheltered in the audience as original. War brings out the worst in everyone, including playwrights.
Mr. Lindsay-Hogg has staged this slice-of-death area with great energy. How different it is from what Herbert Ross originally contrived, before he abdicated the director's chair a few week's ago, is anyone's guess.
The acting - of the grunt, groan, expletive school, natually - is effective enough.
The young movie star Matt Dillon is here making is stage debut, and although the experience will doubtless prove valuable to him, his role is no larger than the rest - nor is he any better.
The best performances come from Ving Rhames as a disillusioned, dignified, and compassionate medical orderly, and Brian Tarantina as a kid hoping to get back home to the girl he left behind in a chocolate factory.
The impressively realistic scenic design is by David Mitchell, and the costume designs "and effects" are by Carrie Robbins. The "effects" feature, presumably, is more tomato catsup than would be poured over many a spaghetti Western.
One notes that the play has the backing of CBS, and perhaps it might one day make a TV special. Why not wait?
In ''The Boys of Winter,'' the new John Pielmeier play at the Biltmore, the audience is asked to empathize with seven marines who are spending Christmas week 1968 on a near-suicide mission in South Vietnam. Such are the play's inadequacies, however, that when the time comes for some of the men to die, we don't mourn for the characters but instead envy the capable actors impersonating them. The actors, after all, have the good fortune to be carried off stage, where they are free to ignore the rest of the play in favor of more stimulating cultural pursuits, like crossword puzzles or poker.
''The Boys of Winter,'' whose 95 minutes capture the war's interminability with surprising effectiveness, makes Mr. Pielmeier's ''Agnes of God,'' a variation on ''Equus'' inflated into theological kitsch, seem like a model of metaphysical and theatrical invention. Ostensibly an investigation of why a virtuous Marine lieutenant named Bonney (D. W. Moffett) would kill ''seven friendly gooks without cause,'' the play is a haphazard compilation of pulp war-literature bromides, slung together like dishrags on a limp clothesline. Whatever else is to be said about the Vietnam War, it has produced an avalanche of shattering authentic testimony, whether in fictional, journalistic, theatrical or cinematic form. Who needs hand-me-down goods after plays ranging from David Rabe's ''Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel'' to last season's ''Tracers''? The most credible lines in this effort are those quoted from Michael Herr's ''Dispatches'' in the Playbill.
The setting is a hilltop in Quang Tri province. While we wait for the author to get to the bloodletting (which is presented with the same pornographic relish of ''Agnes''), we're treated to an exhaustive anthology of barracks talk, mainly consisting of the rapid alternation of two four-letter words. Comic relief takes the form of masturbation jokes, only some of which involve a soldier who has the Marine Corps insignia tattooed below his belt. Now and then the lights go down, so that a character can step forward and give his theory as to why Lieutenant Bonney committed his subsequent atrocities against Vietnamese civilians. Although these monologues appear to be flash-forwards to a court-martial, the speakers all die before such an inquest could take place. Given the playwright's constant metaphorical invocation of holy and secular ''ghosts,'' perhaps we are meant to believe that Marine jurisprudence allows witnesses to testify from the grave.
If so, that might explain the moral rigor mortis infecting the men's arguments. In one typical lecture rationalizing Bonney's crimes, the audience is told that ''we all did it'' - that ''we all have little My Lais in the corners of our souls.'' To say that everyone is guilty for a Lieutenant Calley's acts, of course, is to say that no one is guilty. Were this logic applied to World War II, we might end up with a play titled ''Acquittal at Nuremberg.''
The evening's other historical insights, which often rely on strained analogies prompted by Lieutenant Bonney's American Indian heritage, may leave one longing for the wit and wisdom of Sylvester Stallone. At one point, it's argued that the Americans' real motive for going to Vietnam was to rape the local women (especially 12-year-old girls and grandmothers); at another, the debatable statement that war ''shows us how to love'' is illustrated by a series of crypto-religious, if not crypto-erotic, tableaux formed by buddies dying in each other's arms.
The equally dubious pronouncement that battlefields are ''the only 100 percent pure democracy'' is borne out by the friendship between a Ku Klux Klan cracker (Matt Dillon) and a black (Wesley Snipes). But Mr. Pielmeier saves his biggest revelation for last: With the aid of clumsy flashbacks showing two characters as young Elvis Presley fans back home, he breaks the news that war brings a loss of innocence. ''Love Me Tender'' is sung with dripping irony at the play's opening and close.
The cast, whom the director Michael Lindsay-Hogg sporadically sends into the auditorium on search-and-awaken missions, struggles manfully with roles that are either ethnic stereotypes (Tony Plana's Hispanic junkie) or fixtures from World War II B-movies (Andrew McCarthy's overeager green recruit) or simply ludicrous (Thomas Ikeda as a Vietnamese scout equally well versed in American history and ''The Honeymooners''). Mr. Moffett, Brian Tarantina and Ving Rhames, all seen in far better assignments this year, show the most dignity under duress. Mr. Dillon, the screen heartthrob, has a thin voice but is otherwise able in a stage debut that requires him to do a gratuitous striptease to ''Jingle Bell Rock'' shortly before he's literally ''peeled'' by the Vietcong.
The production's only truly impassioned response to the war is its set. Asked to put a familiar landscape on stage, David Mitchell smartly eschews a realistic design that would compete with ''Apocalypse Now.'' Instead, a gnarled tree rises from a smashed stage floor whose scattered, twisted planks stretch into ramps reaching into the mezzanine; the horrific abyss beyond is abstractly suggested by enormous spider webs of military netting. Pat Collins's lighting completes the hellish diorama, although the only light we care about in ''The Boys of Winter,'' the one at the end of the tunnel, often seems as far away at the Biltmore as it did in Vietnam in 1968.