Dogfight the musical (music and lyrics by La La Land creators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Peter Duchan) is one of those period pieces that make the good old days appear not so good after all — kind of like the musical itself.
The show is based on a 1991 movie written by Bob Comfort and directed by Nancy Savoca. Set in 1963, it starred River Phoenix as a young Marine about to be shipped to Vietnam, and Lili Taylor as a woman he asks on a date. The title refers to a game played by a group of his buddies to see who can bring the biggest “dog” — read: ugly girl — to a party. The guy who brings the ugliest girl wins a pot of money.
Phoenix and Taylor both won praise from critics like Roger Ebert and Peter Travers for their sensitive portrayals of the two lead characters in the story. Suffice it to say, whatever insight and charm the actors and filmmakers brought to the movie has, in this new reincarnation, been thoroughly quashed.
Co-directed by Jennifer Strattan and Jennifer Oundjian, the production at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre features Payson Lewis as Eddie, the “dog”-hunting Marine, while Nicci Claspell (a perfectly attractive woman without the goofy wig and dowdy dress she’s given to wear) depicts Rose, the lovelorn waitress he chooses to bring to the gathering.
Eddie’s two best buddies are Boland (Spencer Strong Smith), a crass, sneaky dude who pays the loud-mouthed, mini-skirted Marcy (Emily Morris) to blacken her teeth so as to win the contest; and Bernstein (Trent Mills), an equally boorish, sex-starved guy so desperate to get laid he almost violently assaults a hooker (his buddies hold him back) when she calls it a night before servicing his needs.
The show’s depiction of gender roles and the battle between the sexes in an era prior to the sexual revolution has you heaving a sigh of relief that we’ve moved on. While it’s true that Eddie owns up to his mistake and seeks to make amends, his actions are overshadowed by the ubiquitous nastiness around him. The show seems to wink at the notion of men sniffing after women like prey. And it’s not only the males who are cast in a bad light here: Excepting Rose, the women are mostly portrayed as either cheap and tarty or plain and dull.
That a production with this kind of chauvinistic baggage has been directed by two women would be jaw-dropping were it not so depressing. Nor does it help that the music and lyrics are forgettable, the dancing (choreography by Oundjian) is not quite in sync and the singing is just OK.
Claspell is the best thing in the show because she successfully projects a sane and honest person. As Eddie, Lewis lacks presence; it’s not a crisp performance.
The skillful musicians (musical direction by bass player Elmo Zapp) give it their best shot throughout. But the wigs (hair design by Ariana Castiglia) are hokey, unnatural and unattractive, while costumer Julius Bronola seems to have shopped for the squeaky-clean hippie garb women wear at the end of the play (when it's 1969) in some Beverly Hills boutique.
Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood; through June 25. plays411.com/dogfight.
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