The first time I saw Dogfight at Second Stage, I wasn’t with Lucky. (Yes, sometimes we do unglue ourselves from each other and do things independently.) But on the walk back to the subway after the show the first thing I did was text her feverishly: You HAVE to see this show.
I loved Dogfight so much I doubted the clarity of my judgment. I was afraid to even say it out loud until someone else agreed with me. Not because I’ve ever been afraid to love anything before, but, I think, because I was afraid hearing anyone else’s opinion would somehow ruin things. I couldn’t take the heartbreak of disagreement.
We never quite got around to writing a review this summer, but as the show’s closing approaches, it felt fitting to compile a list of reasons I loved Dogfight—why I hope to see it live on and maybe even grace the Broadway stage someday.
There’s something to be said for a book that makes you instantly and completely care about its characters. The Book of Mormon has one. Baby It’s You did not. See the difference? This is especially important to Dogfight’s tale—of Eddie, a Jarhead on the eve of deployment, the buddies he’s beginning to see anew, and Rose, the girl he wanted to use but ends up falling for—which is more about character than action. Dogfight falls completely flat if the audience doesn’t become fully invested in the characters on that stage. Thank goodness, then, for Peter Duchan’s book, which achieves the kind of clarity of character that creates an emotional bond between the people on stage and the people in the audience almost immediately. You root for Rose to stand up for herself and squirm in your seat as Eddie awkwardly attempts to woo her back. You occasionally want to kick Boland in the face. Or the jugular. By intermission you care, and you’re dying to know how it all ends. That’s what the best books do.
The largely quiet, contemplative score makes Dogfight feel a bit like a chamber musical, which is the last thing I expected to hear when I entered the theater. I was waiting for jangly keyboards and electric guitar—the sort of non-descript blend of difficult to place styles that is musical theater’s answer to modern pop/rock, but is neither authentically pop nor authentically rock. Which is to say, I was waiting to be disappointed, really. And then I just wasn’t. Composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have put together something original and beautiful and several songs stuck with me for days, in particular Rose’s song and “Pretty Funny” and the song Eddie and Rose sing as they head out on their real first date.
Director Joe Mantello knocks this one out of the park with a language so unique to him—a perfect blend of the directorial grace of Harold Prince and the emotional grit of Michael Grief—that its success shouldn’t have been a surprise. You know. Except for the fact that he directed Wicked, which just… throws all my sensors off. In Dogfight Mantello married the kind of stripped down, painfully real human moments you’ll remember from The Normal Heart, with the grand sweep of a musical that requires a turn table in the stage. It was nearly bursting at the seams of the tiny Second Stage theater, but that only made me wish to see it in a bigger space, not to see the show rendered in a smaller way.
Though much of the central story is about Eddie and Rose, Dogfight is chock-full of guys. Jardhead Guy’s Guys, to be exact, and their characters and relationships are beautifully imagined and portrayed on stage. The Three B’s (Eddie) Birdlace, Bernstein and Boland come to life through pitch-perfect performances by Derek Klena, Nick Blaemire and Josh Segarra, respectively. Blaemire, as the Jewish virgin dying to get laid before being shipped out, is a particular treat, but Segarra slips from chummy to menacing with remarkable ease, and Klena wears Eddie’s transition from macho jerk to tentative romantic hero quite well.
Oh fuck it you guys, LINDSAY MENDEZ IS THE BEST, OKAY?! I mean. She’s not ugly—the whole point of this character being that she’s kind of unattractive—so that does kind of test our suspension of disbelief. But Mendez is otherwise completely perfect, so much so that you don’t even care that homegirl is way too hot for this. Allowed to drop her usual role as brash belt-ress and explore the smart, introspective, sensitive Rose, Mendez gives a totally revelatory performance. She’s a star, man, and this understated performance blows the roof off, not through soaring vocals, but through sheer emotional force and quiet determination.
Photo: Joan Marcus