There is something tiresome in America’s fixation with the 1960s, yet something fascinating about the fixation itself. Steven Dietz is well aware. The local playwright’s 2004 play Last of the Boys opened at Seattle Repertory Theatre last week, and before a word of dialogue is uttered, or a character appears in front of the set’s lone trailer in California’s Central Valley, Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” tears across the sound system. It’s a tonal match for the play's first act, raucous and sly, good old rock and roll with a wink.
The play’s principals—Ben (Reginald André Jackson) and Jeeter (Kevin Anderson)—then appear, both Vietnam vets and longtime friends. It’s 1999 and Ben’s father has just died, and he skipped the funeral. Jeeter is an associate college professor teaching a class on the ‘60s, ranting about Fleetwood Mac, and professing his love for Salyer (Emily Chisholm), a woman he just met. Soon Salyer’s mother, Lorraine (Kate Wisniewski), arrives looking for her.
The four proceed to knock back bottles of beer and talk. The characters' banter, which makes up much of the play, is equally convivial and cutting. Dietz has a ping-ponging sense of dialogue and good fun satirizing 1960s tropes (Jeeter continually goes to Rolling Stones concerts and holds up a sign in the front row that reads “Just Stop,” and his big story is about how he saw Dylan in a room with only six people!). But amid this chatter, characters’ pasts slowly engulf them. Each remains haunted by Vietnam—Salyer’s father was killed in the war—and for Ben and Salyer that haunting becomes literal. Both start hallucinating a young solider (Josh Kenji), and Ben, a Robert McNamara apologist, snaps into a fugue state where he becomes the man.
For much of the play, this works. McNamara's words echo in the characters' present lives, a reminder that within History are millions of smaller histories, each contrasting the others in ways subtle or significant.
Yet the play’s climax comes enveloped in one of these hallucinations with such stagey high drama that here Last of the Boys lapses. Dietz and the production aim so high that the scene comes off less as a study of the war’s effects on individual lives and more as a screed against McNamara’s evils. That may be historically righteous, but dramatically it shut me out. So when another Dylan song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” bookended the play, song and story no longer felt like such a match.
Last of the Boys
Jan 18–Feb 10, Seattle Repertory Theatre, $17–$82