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Main Stage – Goethe Institut
Remaining Performances: Saturday, July 12 at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 15 at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 16 at 9:30 p.m. Friday, July 18 at 6:00 p.m.
They Say: David, an army reporter, arrives in Vietnam supporting the war. Soon his feelings change. Just before returning home, he’s in Bangkok partying when his buddies in Vietnam come under rocket attack. A powerful work on America’s most divisive foreign war.
Derek’s Take: Early on in Hey, Hey, LBJ! David Kleinberg and his reporter buddies sing a song of discouragement to the VietCong: “We’re not vital to the war effort/Don’t shoot at us!” This boozy refrain – set against the backdrop of M*A*S*H-worthy hijinks – aims to boost morale in Kleinberg’s Cu Chi (Saigon) bunker circa 1966. But it’s also a message for those gathered for his solo performance. This show’s NOT a bummer! And for much of its 75 minutes, it’s a promise fulfilled, as Kleinberg recalls his pal Geno’s homespun charms and unpacks his battles with dickhead Captain Mathis (er, “Muttface”) with earnest, youthful energy. This focus succeeds in putting us in Vietnam – in the field, in the camp, and in the shit house – but stops a little short of putting us in Kleinberg’s boots.
The program opens with a grainy black-and-white video of President Lyndon Baines Johnson making the case for war and, soon, Kleinberg’s been drafted and sent into the jungle. Here, we get our lone glimpse of his time in combat, as scattered enemy fire prompts a scorched-earth raid on a hapless village. Kleinberg recounts the scene clinically: the overwhelming rat-tat-tat of .50-caliber guns, the hovering thunder of attack helicopters, the firebombs that propel screaming women and children from their homes. Then we see a snippet of color film that he shot that day. There’s the gun flailing at the edge of his vehicle as it bounds over the landscape. There’s a boy with a mohawk carrying what little he has left to places unknown. It’s a wrenching moment punctuated by Kleinberg’s sad but steely eyes. This is the truth of Johnson’s war.
After four quick months, Kleinberg’s reassigned and off he goes to Cu Chi to edit his division’s newspaper. Hooray, relative safety! But a clerical error gets him in trouble with Muttface – who told him not to fuck things up! – and he goes, overnight, from the figurative shit to the literal, cleaning latrines on a two-month detail. Here, Kleinberg dons a face mask and sunglasses, to deflect fumes but also, perhaps, all the bad news coming from the front. Friends are stricken with post-traumatic stress disorder. Soldiers are betrayed by lousy leadership. And then there’s the guilt of being a part of the war but, as an army correspondent-cum-custodian, not quite in it.
It’s the pall that hangs over him as the narrative bounces between Vietnam, shore leave in Thailand, and a military reunion 30 years into the future. Kleinberg packs a lot in, echoing tropes from Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, but withholds that measure of vulnerability that would drive this piece toward its highest potential. This is a show that’s at least 15 minutes too long, bogged down by conversational back-and-forth that doesn’t do enough to illuminate the characters or Kleinberg’s internal experience of the war and its confusing, paradoxical nature. We see Bob Hope and Nancy Sinatra mock-flirting on a USO stage, but are expected to take Hope’s one-liner – that America is behind the troops, 18 percent – as a proxy for Kleinberg’s own perspective. We see what he sees but aren’t always sure how he feels about it.
That is, until the very end of the show, when he holds up the photos of his army brothers. They are young men, dressed in sweaty green tees with rifles slung over their arms. They stare slyly at the camera, their heads bowed against the unrelenting Southeast Asian sun. These are not the boot camp pictures you see on the news when yet another of our boys has fallen in Afghanistan or Iraq. They’re candid shots, the faces of men just hanging on. And if you look past the photos, to Kleinberg’s eyes all amist, you’ll see that he’s still there with them, fighting Johnson and the military-industrial complex and this whole fucked up world, one performance at a time.
See it if: You think Presidents Obama and Bush are war-mongering bastards, just like LBJ.
Skip it if: You’ve ever contributed to Swift Boat Veterans
DISCLOSURE: The author of this post is an actor in the Capital Fringe show DECADES.