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Review: Modern’s ‘Dogfight’ examines Vietnam era with potent mix of men behaving badly, romance

“Dogfight” is the story of characters in the moments before their lives are upended, and one of its tragedies is that they’re so oblivious to the turbulence that lies ahead. The whole show, which is running at the Modern Theater Coeur d’Alene, is imbued with a sense of impending doom, and there’s a sense of dramatic irony in that we know all about the turmoil they don’t see coming. It’s been a strong year for character-driven stories at the Modern, and “Dogfight,” which closes out the season, is one of the best.

Most of the musical, which was written by Peter Duchan, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is set over the course of a single evening in November 1963. The following day, John F. Kennedy will be dead, and the Vietnam War is destined to escalate. It’s also the eve of Eddie Birdlace’s 21st birthday, and he’s celebrating with one last night of revelry in San Francisco before reporting for active duty.

Eddie (Brendan Brady) and his cocksure pals Boland (Robby French) and Bernstein (Joshua Lee Fox), who collectively refer to themselves as the Three Bees, have organized a cruel competition of objectification and misogyny known as a dogfight. The rules are simple: The men rent out a banquet hall and host a dance, and whoever brings the date deemed the ugliest wins a cash prize.

While some of the privates invite obvious ringers – Boland, for instance, hires a toothless prostitute (Alyssa Day), who demands half his loot – Eddie targets a pretty, shy waitress named Rose (Shelby Horton), who has never been out with a man before. As they head to the party, Rose’s enthusiasm blindsides Eddie, and he has immediate regrets about taking advantage of her.

You might expect the plot to culminate with the party itself, but “Dogfight” isn’t content with being a mere examination of men behaving badly. Rose quickly discovers Eddie’s intentions and excoriates him. “I hope there’s a war,” she says, “and I hope you get killed.” But when separated from his cronies, Eddie is softer than he lets on, and eventually convinces Rose to give him another shot.

“I don’t care what you look like,” he assures her, unaware that those words will sting. “I wish you did,” she responds, obviously wounded.

“Dogfight,” directed for the Modern by Abbey Crawford, is an exploration of toxic masculinity, certainly, and of the hierarchical structure of male friendships. But the script, adapted from director Nancy Savoca’s 1991 indie film, is just as concerned with the down-to-earth romance that blossoms intensely and unexpectedly between Rose and Eddie, and it’s as much her story as his.

Their personal temperaments are clearly at odds with one another. Eddie is a practitioner of brute force – he often uses his military status as an excuse for occasional outbursts of boorish behavior – and he believes that brandishing a gun is the ultimate statement of power. Rose, meanwhile, is a fledgling folk musician, and she earnestly subscribes to the pacifistic message of “We Shall Overcome.”

Those conflicting moral dogmas neatly encapsulate America in the ’60s, as the characters waver between rah-rah patriotism and complete hopelessness. When Eddie and his fellow Marines sing of the country they’re leaving behind (“Goodbye to chili fries / To apple pies and Dinah Shore”), their idealism sounds like a pipe dream. And when Eddie finally returns home, he’s greeted not as a hero, but with indifference and outright hostility.

The show’s final moments are its most potent, as Eddie steps off a Greyhound in San Francisco and has to confront the crushing disillusionment he encounters there. The closing scene finds Eddie back in the diner where he and Rose initially met, and Horton and Brady are superb in those moments. So many stories about the Vietnam era use their characters as symbols for big ideas, but these actors have sensitively created two specific, imperfect people.

“Dogfight” ends with a number of question marks. Will Eddie ever recover from the trauma of the war? Can he and Rose move on? Are they meant to be together at all? But all of that rings true: Like life itself, this show is sweet and heartfelt one moment, bruising and unforgiving the next. “All disasters have an upside,” Rose sings at one point, and we’re left with a glimmer of hope that this one does.

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