The Vietnamization of New Jersey

Chemically Imbalanced Comedy

Don’t you know why God allows wars? God looks down from heaven and he sees a poor country with too many people and he says to himself, “Oh dear, think how much poverty and degradation these people are going to face because there are so many of them,” and then he whispers into the President’s ear at night, and then in the morning there is a war. –The Vietnamization of New Jersey

Christopher Durang’s dark farce The Vietnamization of New Jersey, written in 1976 on commission from Yale Repertory Theatre, was conceived as a satiric bicentennial response to late-60s angst. Alternately mocking and morbid, this portrait of an American family wrestling with the Vietnam war and its aftermath is packed with period references, from the Doublemint jingle to the Watergate scandal. Yet, as Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s engagingly scruffy mounting of the rarely done work shows, the unresolved questions of the past have serious implications for the present. Did antiwar activists unwittingly prolong the war rather than ending it? Was it wrong for the government to set a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal? Was America’s postwar malaise the result of losing in Vietnam or of being there in the first place? Substitute “Iraq” for “Vietnam” and you’ll see that the issues Durang was dealing with are alive and kicking. And the play’s larger themes–American jingoism, racial injustice, moral chaos, and the failure of popular culture to provide useful models–ring loud and clear today.

The Vietnamization of New Jersey addresses these matters with an abrasive irony that’s proved more durable and thought provoking than the self-righteous seriousness that characterized the antiwar agitprop of the Vietnam era. Durang’s play started life as a satire of one prominent example of the genre: David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones, winner of the 1972 Tony for best play and part of his series of war indictments, which also included The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Streamers. Rabe populated Sticks and Bones with a materialistic family named Ozzie, Harriet, and David in homage to the paradigmatic sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet.

Accordingly, The Vietnamization of New Jersey focuses on an ultradysfunctional family headed by Ozzie Ann, a bossy but loving mom determined to keep things afloat with her cheery smile and motherly insistence on good manners. (“Don’t say shit,” she lectures one of her brood. “Say feces.”) Harry is her ineffectual husband, and Et their rebellious teenage son, perpetually horny and hungry. When the play opens in 1967, the clan is awaiting the return of Et’s older brother, David, a Vietnam vet blinded and traumatized by the war. He arrives with his new wife, Liat, a blind Vietnamese he’s married to “atone for America’s sins.” Housekeeper Hazel is a militant African-American whose diatribes sound more like the rhetoric of black radical Angela Davis than the homespun homilies trotted out by the maid in the 60s sitcom Hazel. David’s homecoming unleashes a torrent of anarchic violence, turning the household into a battlefield and giving terrible new meaning to the notion of bicentennial fireworks. Though the action is cartoonish and tongue-in-cheek, the hilarity has a horrific undercurrent.

Director-critic Robert Brustein (Durang’s mentor) notes in his introduction to the published script that the playwright’s strategy is to skewer “right-wing warmongers and leftwing guiltmongers alike, like Lenny Bruce before him.” David’s blindness, Et says, “points to the fact that the American people are blind figuratively.” Liat (“one of the people that we are supposedly fighting for,” Ozzie Ann notes) is named after a character in The King and I, marking her as a send-up of Hollywood stereotypes of Asian women.

Lampooning the way political drama preaches to the converted, Durang is an equal-opportunity satirist. His take-no-prisoners approach gives the play a brash, youthful quality reminiscent of Fox’s American Dad!, which simultaneously promulgates and parodies anti-CIA politics. (That contemporary edge may explain why The Vietnamization of New Jersey is slated for its long-overdue New York debut next year at the Harold Clurman Theatre.)

Under Dave Whalley’s straight-forward direction, Angela McMahon as the hilarious and poignant Ozzie Ann, Chris Rehmann as David, Matt Roberson as Et, Laura Mahler as Liat, Nicole Cobb-Oliver as Hazel, Dale Caba as a prissy priest, and Matt Hendricks as both Harry and his army reservist brother Larry give the material insight, energy, and integrity. Whalley also designed the set, a terminally tacky living room with mismatched furniture and cheap wood paneling that could come down without warning at any time–and does.

Playing the script’s absurd exaggerations straight, the performers inhabit their characters rather than commenting on them. These aren’t caricatures but real people–albeit ridiculous two-dimensional ones. The tragedy is that they’re unable to comprehend that their silly, sentimental sitcom worldview is completely useless. Ozzie Ann’s idealistic belief in a resilient America is all too familiar: “If we didn’t win the war, or if we fought on the wrong side, or whatnot–well, I say, that’s behind us, let’s get on with the business at hand.” If only it were that easy.

WHEN Through 10/8: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sun 5 PM

WHERE Cornservatory, 4210 N. Lincoln


INFO 773-865-7731