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Soap Box Derby

BURNING BLUE
By DMW GREER
At the COURT THEATER
722 N. La Cienega Blvd.
Through April 15

COMBAT!
By JOHN FISHER
At the VICTORIA THEATER
2961 16th St.,
San Francisco
Through April 18

"I would have followed you to the ends of the Earth!" confesses one earnest character in Burning Blue, DMW Greer's melodrama about gays in the Navy. That such a line could be spoken on the stage with a straight face mere months before the 21st century is both touching and alarming. But then, it is often the nature of "issue" playwrights to wear their hearts on their characters' sleeves - and to assume their audiences admire cliches when they appear in the service of a cause.

The Court Theater's U.S.-premiere production (the play has seen action in Britain, South Africa and Israel) opens with jet-fighter cockpit chatter between naval airmen Daniel Lynch and Matthew Blackwood (Michael J. Reilly and Mark Deakins), banter heard on a stage momentarily concealed by an expanded parachute; the chute's round center vent possibly suggests an anus, as well as an evening of wry visual puns. No such luck. Instead, Greer shuffles scenes without any structure to support four central characters and their interminable chummy talk about flight school, girlfriends and barroom exploits. Slackly acted under John Hickok's laissez-faire direction, the story about two officers' fateful outing, and the official investigation that follows, creaks forward at a pace that can only be measured in geological time.

Greer is a former naval pilot, and a certain technical veracity runs both throughout his script and in this show's production design. (Hickok's set is austere yet adroitly functional.) But even if his story is a word-for-word reenactment of events he personally experienced, the tale is so artlessly presented that it's dead before it leaves the page.

For one thing, Greer chooses an investigative format he has no aptitude for, introducing a pair of plainclothes "special agents" who are trying to verify information about two officers spotted kissing in a Hong Kong disco. One investigator, Jones (Adam Clark), all but vanishes for the remainder of the play, leaving it up to Special Agent Cokely (understudy Chuck Castleberry the night I attended) to interview the rest of the cast. But Cokely is less a person than some malevolent Geist that materializes at will in the living rooms and ship's quarters of the subjects he's interviewing, furiously jotting down everything they say in his little notebook - a homophobic martinet ever berating and harassing people who, strangely enough, seem barely fazed by his histrionics and unwilling to challenge him. Call this play An Inspector Brays.

A far more serious problem - one endemic to "cause" plays - lies in the playwright's assumption that the people who will go to see Burning Blue are automatically on the side of his hounded pilots and will let slide excesses and shortcomings that, in other dramas, would send them running to their cars at intermission. Greer's soap opera certainly makes it plain whom we are to cheer, whom we are to hiss and where we are to cry. But it doesn't invite us to think - either to contemplate the dilemmas and pressures of clandestine gay military life, or to consider the doomed Lynch and Blackwood anything but persecuted victims deprived of their great love of flying military aircraft.

The only thing expected of us is to feel sorry for the two lieutenants, for when you get down to it, Burning Blue's message is, "He's gay and they won't let him fly a jet fighter - isn't that tragic?" Well, that may be so (although I can think of worse things in life), but there are limits to what this kind of theater can accomplish. By chewing our food for us, Greer leaves us nothing to do but sit back and stare at our watches.

John Fisher's play Combat!, which is running at San Francisco's Victoria Theater, is also about gays in the military, although his sprawling saga takes place during World War II. An epic of presentational theater, it tells three stories: that of Harry Stack Sullivan, the noted psychiatrist who designed the behavioral profiles that became part of the Selective Service's inductee questionnaires; of a fictional Marine platoon led by a gruff but nelly sergeant; and of a lesbian love story involving two WACs. We watch as the closeted Sullivan (Christopher Herold) accepts the challenge to vet the services of men whose psychological makeup may spell trouble for them and their fellow soldiers down the line, only to find that homosexuality is one of the mental "deviations" the military and government will not countenance. As Sullivan vainly fights to have questions about homosexuality stricken from induction interviews, Sergeant Jake Tower (Fisher) trains his men in San Diego and leads them into bloody combat on Tarawa, while the newly minted WAC Lieutenant Susan Miller (Jana Chavez) is seduced by her superior, Major Bev Franklin (Erin-Kate Whitcomb), whom she accompanies to Italy.

Combat! is an ambitious undertaking whose whole is unfortunately less than the sum of its parts. Although stylishly directed by Fisher, who keeps the two-hour show bouncing to period swing music, it leaves little to the interpretive imagination of its actors and comes off as nothing more than a gay-history pageant. Fisher, the UC Berkeley phenomenon whose Medea, The Musical sparkled at the Stage Door Theater two years back, says he grew up as a boy playing army in Marin County and has maintained a lifelong interest in things martial. His fascination shows in Combat!'s obsessive attention to detail, although the program announces this one caveat: "No attempt has been made to re-create the language of the 1940s." It's a serious omission - not that the characters speak like skateboarders, but many of their conversations sound like Socratic dialogues or speeches, and seem to be addressed more to the future than their present. "Only when they are willing to stand up and say they are gay will they get power," exhales one character rather too prophetically. "The '50s will be a bad time," another smugly predicts at the close of the war. Who can argue with hindsight?

Fisher even throws in a kind of Cokely twin, in the form of PFC Dutch Holland (Drew Burns), an all-purpose bigot who hates gays and the one black gyrene posted to Sergeant Tower's outfit. How much more interesting it would have been to have distributed Holland's prejudices among some of Combat!'s gay characters; this would have shortened Holland's tail somewhat while making the others a little more three-dimensional. Fisher is not flagrantly begging us to feel sorry for his gay characters, but again, there is an implicit mandate that we should be rooting for them, even though they haven't really done anything onstage to merit our admiration.

Two years ago, in a speech reprinted in Harper's Magazine, University of Virginia professor Richard Rorty argued that American intellectuals and leftists have abandoned "the rhetoric of fraternity" in favor of what he called "the language of rights." That is, progressives have stopped appealing to their countrymen's sense of fair play through discourse and reflection, and now instead rely on legislative commands to grant things like homosexual rights, especially the right to serve in the armed forces. Rorty found debates about the existence of such unconditional commands to be "a pointless importation of legal discourse into politics, and a distraction from what is really needed in this case: an attempt by the straights to put themselves in the shoes of the gays."

But in Burning Blue and Combat!, as in much politically charged theater, the only shoes belong to visionary martyrs or evil squares. This isn't inevitable; Jonathan Tolins' Twilight of the Golds, Michael Kearns' Intimacies and Robert Chesley's Dog Plays, to name three works, all presented emotionally involving gay characters and situations without violin soundtracks. To be truly challenged by theater we must be offended - not simply by whatever cruel fate is dealt to decent people, but also by the reprehensible choices those same decent people often make. A play that depicts all the things we hate and fear in ourselves - and not just in some cardboard villain - is far more likely to move us to thought (and possibly action) than 100 stories of men wearing crowns of thorns. This is the kind of play we will follow to the ends of the Earth.