A Play with Sharon Gans, reviewed

The Theater: "Viet Rock" Play by Megan Terry at the Matinique

The New York Times/November 11, 1966
By Walter Kerr

Viet Rock, a play by Megan Terry, incidental music by Marianne de Pury; staged by Miss Terry; musical accompaniment by Miss de Pury; lighting by Gill Wechster; stage manager, Jerome Michael. Presented by Jordan Charney, Nancy Cooperstein and David Rothenberg, in association with Stanley Swerdlow. At the Martinique Theater, Broadway and 32nd Street.

With Seth Allen, Mr. Charney, Joseph Daley, Fred Forrest, Paul Giovanni, Roy London, Gerome Ragni, Kay Carney, Shami Chaikin, Sharon Gans, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Muriel Miguel, and Barbara Ralley.

The one truly distressing thing about "Viet Rock," the antiwar pageant that opened at the Off-Broadway Martinique last night, is that it is never aware for one moment that it is behaving precisely as mindlessly as the conduct it means to mock.

In fact, it simply adapts the tools of warmongering to the uses of the theater. In all of the linguistic and physical writhing, the tortured mime, the atonal song and the clash of hard heels against the floorboards that "playwright" Megan Terry has put together in the name of theatrical adventurousness and political common sense, not one cogent thing is said about our involvement in Vietnam, about how we got there or about how we are possibly ever going to get out.

Instead, we are given an incessant beat that is borrowed directly from the warriors drum, an incessant bleat that is identical with the blurred, unintelligible roar that might come from the amplifier of a recruiting truck. Mindlessness is not made sport of, or brought to heel. It is imitated, as though one bad turn deserved another. If war is hell, Miss Terry seems to say, let us make the theater hell, too, with the same techniques.

Thus we are barked at, leered at, stomped at and - in effect - sneered at until we are quite willing to say uncle, if not Uncle Sam. "U.S. Government Inspected Male!" chants a chorus of waiting women while their men pass physicals to the tune of "Stick 'em in the arm, stick 'em in the end!"

After the girls have made themselves into an outlined airplane and flown future heroes to the jungles where the napalm burns, they drop to their knees for more choral unison: "Citizens arrest! Make love, not war!" They get robot replies in return. If they have battered out a rhythmic "Innocent people are being burned!" they get a short, snappy, automated "Gee, we are sorry about that" back from the boys.

A boy crawling on his belly lifts his head for a split second to intone "I can't wait till I get there and make a killing on the black market!" Three Vietnamese women, moving their mouths in soundless spasms of anguish, are waved away loftily by a lady-like voice: "Usher, please escort these ladies to the powder room. I think they'd like to freshen up." Uniformed lads on a three-day spree in Saigon accompany their dancing with fiercely inflected slogans: "Let's go gay with L.B.J.! I got syphilis today because of L.B.J.!"

But none of this is comment. It is simple sloganeering, hawk-talking in reverse, pounding on the barrel of a big black drum. If it were to have any effect, or to change anyone's mind about the nature and conduct of the war, the change of heart would be just as irresponsible as any previously held position possibly could have been. For the new decision would have been arrived at as a result of an assault on the nerve ends, and that is not, I think, the best way to produce conversation or fresh convictions.

One holds off judgment for quite a time. Perhaps the opening arrangement of slack bodies on the floor, bodies that slowly stir to a hum and a twitch and a beginning groan, will unfold and build to a graphic image, a meaningful crescendo. Perhaps the snatches of unrhymed song ("Don't put all your eggs in one basket, Better keep some in reserve, my dear, Because men die young!") the sex titillation provided by Hanoi Hannah during broadcasts to American soldiers, the symbolic business of lighting matches in the air and crumbling burnt to the ground, will all come together like a thunderclap from heaven with the voice of Jove issuing clear orders inside it.

Nothing of the sort happens.The evening is eternally peripheral, making little feints and short jabs in preparation for an intellectual jolt that never arrives. A bit of the failure is due to Miss Terry's own direction and to the immature playing.Though two or three performers (impossible to identify from the program) manage a sly aside or an ironic drawl, most of the miming is composed of stock gesture coarsely formed.

The burden must rest, however, upon the partially improvised text. Wit does not get much beyond a politician's saying "This administration, of which I am a part of, indulges in anything but realism." And ingenuity reaches its apex with another politician's announcement that "I would like to back up my colleague" while standing back to back with him and speaking in the electrified monotone of a mechanical man.

Just once, I think, does the author strike a clear tone, "Your son is tagged," a hospital orderly tells a mother. "Will I know him?" asks the mother hesitantly. "You'll know his voice" is the noncommittal reply. We need no more. In fact, we certainly do not need the sentimentality that follows, as the mother plays out a recognition scene that is the next thing to a wrestling match.

Yet the greatest disservice of all lies in making us think that we have been exposed to a core of meaning when in fact we have been subjected to an essentially thoughtless, from-the-gut-only noise. In a way, the evening is no doubt entirely fair. It should prove equally unilluminating to hawks and doves.

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