Chicago Theater Review: DOGFIGHT (BoHo Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 13, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


The title can mislead: Dogfight is not about World War I flying aces Eddie Rickenbacker and The Red Baron doing loop-the-loops as they shoot each other out of the sky. Dogfight does take place during war, but the title refers to a much more cowardly act. Conducted by raw Marines in 1963 San Francisco as they’re about to ship out to die in the rice fields of Vietnam, it’s an ugly contest to see who can win a prize for picking up the ugliest girl. (Imagine Carrie with only the pig’s blood and no prom-night massacre in the school gym.) Basic training, it seems, requires sexual abuse as collateral damage.

Nick Graffagna (from left), Garrett Lutz, Emily Goldberg and Matt Frye star in the BoHo Theatre production of DOGFIGHT. Photo by Amy Boyle.

Closing its 11th season, BoHo Theatre premieres this divisive but ultimately decent 2011 musical version by songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and bookwriter Peter Duchan. Based on the 1991 Warner Brothers film, it chronicles the improbable liaison between Corporal Eddie Birdlace, a feckless and foul-mouthed recruit, and Rose Fenny, the hopeful and presumably plain waitress he picks up as his “dog” of a date.

Eddie Birdlace is one of the “three Bees”–with bumptious buddies Boland and Bernstein (Matt Frye and Nick Graffagna). Reflexive misogynists seething with male entitlement, these would-be “hometown heroes” are goofball drifters and peer-group pressure cookers. Getting tattooed to prove their “Semper fi” toughness and loyalty, the jerks dare each other to do dumb things like a “dogfight.” (Much like similar punks in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, they enforce the dangerous dogma that a good-looking guy who goes out with an ugly girl tells the world that’s all he deserves or the best he can get.)

Emily Goldberg plays Rose and Garrett Lutz plays Birdlace in the BoHo Theatre production of DOGFIGHT. Photo by Amy Boyle.On the town (but this is no score by Leonard Bernstein), the jarhead trio erupt in dances (choreographed by Stephen Schellhardt) that vary from Marine marches to the Frug. With crafty conformity, they organize a “dogfight” for reasons that defy logic as much as humanity. (You’d think that with limited shore leave, the guys would go for beautiful ladies who can give them happy last memories, not play cruel jokes on wishful dames.)

Happily, something strangely clean emerges from the dirty tricks. If the first act shows us handsome Garrett Lutz as an Eddie (“Hey  Good Lookin’”) who’s no better than his stupid chums, the second revels in his clumsy redemption (“Come Back”). Never altering except in levels of humiliation and indignation, Emily Goldberg (too pretty to be credible as a canine female) turns pain to passion in Rose’s laceratingly ironic “Pretty Funny” and the bittersweet “Before It’s Over.” As Eddie takes her to a restaurant he can’t afford, discovers Rose’s beloved record collection, and meets her protective mom (Jillian Weingart), this brat next door realizes an inconvenient truth: Their too-quick “First Date/Last Night” is more happiness than a small-town louse deserves: Still, he can earn it by rising to Rose’s occasion. Whether Eddie gets punished in Vietnam for his mistakes on the mainland is a different matter.

BoHo’s rocky romance charts very familiar territory and the songs are sweetly serviceable at best. But, no question, with wizard casting, useful projections (by Tony Churchill) and very natural storytelling, Peter Marston Sullivan’s staging at Theater Wit finds good in everything it mirrors. It’s not easy to bring anything noble out of the Vietnam War (and in any case 1963 was way too early for these Marines to be heading out en masse). Like the Iraq invasion, happy endings here can only be unintended consequences, like a dogfight where everyone wins. But musicals spin silk from dross: That’s why we need them.

Nick Graffagna (from left), Garrett Lutz and Matt Frye in the BoHo Theatre production of DOGFIGHT. Photo by Amy Boyle.

photos by Amy Boyle Photography

BoHo Theatre
Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on October 18, 2015
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit

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