Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Stage Review: “Dooley” (Diversionary Theatre, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I first heard of Dr. Thomas A. Dooley in Robert Scheer’s powerful 1965 pamphlet, How the United States Got Involved in Viet Nam, in which he was treated as a figure of derision. Until then I’d only vaguely been aware of the name — not surprisingly because, though he’d had a shooting-star sort of fame in the 1950’s (indeed, a lot of people — including at least one playgoer at Diversionary Theatre May 16 — had thought the Kingston Trio’s hit song “Tom Dooley” was about him, which it wasn’t; it was actually an adaptation of a Black folk song from the 1890’s, “Tom Dula,” about a lynching victim, but the song’s popularity and the real-life Dooley’s celebrity no doubt had a synergistic effect on each other), he died on January 18, 1961. Scheer had described him as a member of the so-called “Viet Nam Lobby,” along with Lt. Col. Edward Lansdale of the CIA and International Rescue Committee (IRC) founder Dr. Leo Cherne and behind-the-scenes participation by powerful officials in the U.S. Catholic Church, notably Cardinal Francis Spellman, who in the mid-1950’s promoted U.S. aid to South Viet Nam and hailed its Catholic president, Ngo Dinh Diem, as a model reformer and an exemplar of the so-called “Third Way” for the Third World, neither imperialist nor Communist. (Diem turned out to be a typically corrupt Third World caudillo dictator, famous for installing his family members in power, plundering the national treasury, and also giving economic and social preferences to Catholics in a 90 percent Buddhist country.)

As the Viet Nam war receded in my consciousness, so did Dooley — until I read Randy Shilts’ final (and posthumously published) book Conduct Unbecoming, about the history of the ban on Queer people serving in the U.S. military. Relying on the research of journalist Barbara Shaw, Shilts painted a picture of Dooley as a Gay man done in by the U.S. military and its prejudices, thrown out of his position as a U.S. Navy lieutenant in 1956 just as his first book, Deliver Us from Evil, was hitting the best-seller lists and catapulting him to nationwide fame, and given a less-than-honorable discharge which he was literally using the last few weeks of his life (he was diagnosed with cancer in 1959 and died from it less than two years later) to get upgraded to honorable. (The upgrade finally came through just days before he died.) Between those two sources, it occurred to me that Tom Dooley’s life was the stuff of which great drama could be made, if only because it was so full of contradictions: the good little Roman Catholic boy from St. Louis, Missouri; the high-living playboy who nearly washed out of medical school because of his love of upper-class parties; the Navy doctor who threw himself into helping refugees from (North) Viet Nam and who later aspired to do in Laos what Albert Schweitzer had done in Africa; and the great man stricken in his prime by an insidious and tragic disease.

“Naval officer, CIA operative, celebrity, humanitarian, son, playboy, a hero for his time,” the Diversionary Theatre program for the world premiere of William de Canzio’s play Dooley describes him — and President John F. Kennedy (a close personal friend and fellow member of the Viet Nam Lobby) cited Dooley as his inspiration for founding the Peace Corps. There is a great play — and, potentially, an even greater movie — in Dooley’s life, and de Canzio has come up with a sometimes brilliant, sometimes frustrating script that misses as often as it hits. It begins with a sequence showing an actor (Shaun Tuazon) in traditional Southeast Asian theatrical garb — headdress, skirt, heavy bracelets and other jewelry, and little or nothing above the waist — introducing himself as Thanatos, the ancient Greek spirit of death, and brings on two other similarly clad characters described in the program as “Dancing Gods” (Nicholas Strassburg and Jacinto Delgado) before Dooley himself (Robert Borzych) makes his entrance. What’s most frustrating about the play is that it doesn’t need Thanatos or the “Dancing Gods,” who are fun to watch when they do their acrobatics but just take the focus away from where it should be — on Dooley and the contradictions in his life. He’s shown with an overbearing mother, Agnes (Terrill Miller) — who periodically appears to comment on the action (since the real Dooley was usually as far away from St. Louis as he could get, he and his mother are almost never shown together in real time; when both Borzych and Miller are on stage at once, they’re communicating only by letter or phone) — and a Navy command structure he’s too much of a free spirit to fit in comfortably.

As punishment for one too many drinking and screwing bouts in Tokyo, he’s assigned to the U.S.S. Montague for what’s supposed to be a rescue mission in the relatively politically stable Philippines — only just about this time the battle of Dien Bien Phu happens, the French lose the (first) Viet Nam war, the Geneva Accords are signed (the U.S. refuses to sign the final document, more or less agrees to abide by its terms, then organizes a rump “alliance,” the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, to ensure that no other Southeast Asian country is allowed to be taken over, or half-taken over, by a Communist regime) and the Montague is diverted to the North Viet Namese city of Haiphong to process and transport the refugees who want to flee the Communist government and resettle in South Viet Nam. (In the U.S. media at the time this was hailed as the “Flight to Freedom,” and much was made of the fact that one million Viet Namese choose to cross from North to South, while only 100,000 went from South to North. Scheer’s book argued that the North Viet Namese actually wanted their supporters to remain in the south to organize for the elections that were scheduled for 1956 to determine which side would get to govern a reunified Viet Nam — elections almost everyone agreed the North would have won — and which were repeatedly postponed and, in 1959, cancelled altogether; while the people who fled the North for the South were mostly either ones who had worked for the French when they ran Viet Nam as a colony or Roman Catholics fearful of religious persecution under the Communists and attracted to the presence of a Catholic leader in the South.)

Dooley threw himself into the humanitarian work of helping the refugees and Col. Lansdale (the model for the title characters of the novels The Ugly American and The Quiet American) adopted him as a symbol of anti-Communist heroism and international cooperation between the U.S. and a non-Communist “Third Way” government. Through Lansdale’s connections, Dooley’s book Deliver Us from Evil was published and he became a national hero — which de Canzio depicts mostly through the character of Iris (Allison Riley), a rather too broadly characterized grande dame of the New York literary and media scene who worries frantically that he good friend “Clare” (Boothe Luce, whom we never see as an onstage character) will grab her new media star for Time magazine — even while the Navy was mounting an intense investigation of him, including talking an admiral’s son, Jamie (Noah Longton), whom Dooley had a previous affair with, into seducing him again with tape recorders going to capture irrefutable evidence against him.

Historical sources agree that Dooley was Gay but disagree about how aggressive he was about it — he’s been described as everything from a self-hating closet case repressed by his Roman Catholic upbringing and only having furtive, clandestine sexual encounters to a full-flown party boy who regularly sought out underground Gay scenes in Asia, Washington, D.C. and Hollywood. De Canzio gives Dooley a semi-serious Asian boyfriend, Khai (played by Shaun Tuazon, who also appears as “Thanatos”), and portrays both Jamie’s seduction and betrayal of Dooley with real pathos — even though Dooley’s biographers disagree on whether he actually had an affair with an admiral’s son and the assumption in de Canzio’s script that he did turns Dooley a little too closely parallel to the story of Oscar Wilde (and to that of Tchaikovsky, come to think of it) for my taste.

Modern-day Queer playwrights tend to avoid self-hating characters even when dealing with the history of real-life Queers who hated themselves — Paul Rudnick’s Valhalla turned the self-hating Roman Catholic King Ludwig II of Bavaria (who, according to his diaries, financed Wagner because he was convinced the aggressively heterosexual Wagner’s music would turn him straight) into a flaming party boy openly oohing and aahing over the soldiers in the military parades he reviewed as king — and de Canzio is no exception; he gives Dooley some choice lines about why he’s being bounced out of the Navy for sex acts while the person he had sex with gets a promotion for ratting him out (an interesting permutation of the U.S. military’s penchant for identifying one party to a Gay encounter as the seducer and the other party as the victim, which occurs over and over again in proceedings aimed at discharging Gay or supposedly Gay servicepeople), and he gives Lansdale a speech about how stupid the Navy is, especially by comparison to the CIA, which tolerated Gay members as long as they got the job done. (Actually, they didn’t; since one of the theories why Queers were supposedly unsuitable for military service was their vulnerability to blackmail by the nation’s enemies, the CIA would have been about the last place in government to tolerate Queers in the ranks.)

A more tortured, self-conflicted Dooley would have been an even more interesting character than the one de Canzio has given us — and though he hints at it, de Canzio could have made more of Dooley’s gradual turning away from the Cold War certainties of Deliver Us from Evil (there are some wickedly funny lines about the supposed indivisibility of democracy and capitalism, and the U.S.’s obligation not only to wipe out Communism but impose a pax Americana on the world) to a more progressive politics that stressed the need for other countries to find their own paths to good governance that might or might not look like our system. Also, it seems odd that de Canzio has Dooley tell us he was held prisoner for 10 months by the Viet Minh (the Communist movement led by Ho Chi Minh) but doesn’t include a scene actually showing this.

Dooley has the strong production “finish” one expects from Diversionary — Matt Scott’s set is a simple series of slatted panels and doorways that open and close with the unnatural speed of the automatic doors on Star Trek (which were also worked by unseen stagehands); Michelle Caron’s lighting design is surprisingly muted (a sign in the lobby warned that the play used strobe lights, but if so they were used so subtly they were virtually unnoticeable and there was no attempt to use them to suggest being under fire); Blair Robert Nelson, credited with original score and sound design, has come up with an interesting, eclectic and sometimes apropos collection of songs from Dooley’s era (though the use of something as light as Louis Armstrong’s “Jeepers Creepers” as outro music is a mistake); director Cynthia Stokes does the best she can with the jarring dancing-gods scenes (which seem to exist only because de Canzio wanted to establish a sense of “Asianicity”) and stages the rest simply and eloquently; and the cast is stunning.

Robert Borzych actually looks like the real Dooley (at least judging by the photo on the Wikipedia page for Dooley) and he acts the part de Canzio created with power and authority — he could have been even better in a deeper, richer, more eloquent version of Dooley’s life — and the other standouts in the cast are Tuazon as Khai and Reed Willard in a dual role as one of Dooley’s Navy drinking buddies and one of his inquisitors. Dooley is a frustrating play because it’s good as it stands but one keeps asking oneself, “What if … ” — specifically, what if de Canzio had put greater trust in the reality of Dooley’s story instead of throwing in the superfluous Vietnamoiserie scenes and giving him too much of the sensibility of a modern-day crusader against military homophobia instead of the tortured, conflicted man he really was.

Dooley is playing through Sunday, May 29 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and other information, please call (619) 220-0097 or visit http://www.diversionary.org/