Examining Emotional Wounds Of Vietnam

Posted: July 25, 1989

PRINCETON — The three hospitalized Vietnam veterans in Pvt. Wars never talk about the war. But that traumatic conflict is the subject of James McLure's play, which is more interested in the damage inflicted on the American psyche than it is in battlefield wounds.

The guys are all psycho cases, and their struggle to return to civilian life is frequently funny but basically tragic. Their plight and the nation's have the same subtext. This is a successful play in just about every respect.

I saw and admired it first 10 years ago as a one-acter with McLure's wildly funny Lone Star at the annual new- play festival in Louisville, Ky. Since then, McLure has expanded Pvt. Wars to two acts, which are strongly sustained in this McCarter Theater Company summer production.

Staged first by artistic director Nagle Jackson in Oslo, Norway, in April, the full-length version will complete its two-week run at the McCarter Theater Thursday through Sunday. It will play the Fine Arts Theater of Rutgers University, Camden, Aug. 17 to 20 as part of the New Jersey Theater Jubilee.

Each of the three VA Hospital patients has a distinctive strategy for fighting his private war with the world that has invaded his life. Gately, a good old Alabama boy, is obsessively repairing a radio, whose parts the two others keep stealing.

Natwick is an upper-class twit from the high-rent district of Long Island. He is paranoid and proud of it. His favorite conversational gambit is to say, ''I don't want to talk about it."

The most seriously hurt is Silvio, whose deviant sexual behavior is the result of a shrapnel wound. The loss of his manhood can be taken as symbolic of what the war did to this country's pride. But it does not have to be so interpreted. McLure is not pushy with his metaphors.

In a succession of brief scenes, the play watches how these three mismatched survivors make contact with each other. It is an often grotesque process. When Natwick talks of cutting his wrists, the helpful Gately offers him a razor. Silvio leads Gately through a rambling disquisition on the procreative superiority of boxer shorts over tight underwear, a lecture that confuses Gately with its comparison of male sperm to spawning salmon.

At times one suspects that McLure has forgotten his play in favor of surefire comic bits, as when Silvio and Gately play out a singles-bar scene with Silvio as a rogue priest and Gately as an indescribably ugly girl whom the priest is trying to proposition.

That scene is the high score of actor Kevin Chamberlin's performance as Gately. His "ugly" is an exaggeration to a hilarious extreme.

As Silvio, Robin Tate is by turns ridiculously macho and pathetically hungry for intimacy. He is also frightening with a knife in his hand.

The play is done with limited production resources on a platform erected on the McCarter stage. The audience sits in bleachers on the stage, making the play a work of chamber theater. It is a pretty good one.

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