About a year ago, director John Haidar wrote to various regional theatres in the U.S. asking for recommended works that they had staged but which had not yet made their way across the pond. The Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, one of the regional powerhouses of new American writing, included Last of the Boys by Steven Dietz, who is one of the most widely produced playwrights in America.
Summer 1999. A trailer park in the Central Valley of California, right in the middle of nowhere. Ben’s trailer is the last one remaining, probably because of the toxic soil. Ben is getting another beer from the fridge. He should be at his father’s funeral but his friend Jeeter went instead to pay his final respects. Ben at Jeeter are Vietnam veterans. Their reunion is disturbed by Salyer, a strange girl Jeeter picked up on the way to the funeral, with Salyer’s mother Lorraine not far behind.
The focus of the play is on the friendship of the two Vietnam vets – the introverted, laconic Ben and Jeeter, a former hippy who travels around the world in his pursuit of the Rolling Stones, when he is not teaching at university. As they are drinking beer and talking, their bantering reveals a friendship founded on mutual dependence and threatened by dishonesty evoking the writing of Sam Shepard. Although Demetri Goritsas is a bit young to play Ben, he convinces as the isolated man as does Todd Boyce as the extroverted Jeeter who falls for a girl half his age. Zoë Tapper makes the most of her slightly underwritten character Salyer, in search of her father who is still MIA according to her mother Lorraine (Wendy Nottingham), who drowns her ruined life in alcohol, harbouring an intense hatred for Robert McNamara.
Steven Dietz’s play premiered in Chicago in 2005 and is an examination of the Vietnam War drawing parallels with America’s reaction to 9/11. It is written from an American point of view. Although the atrocities against Vietnamese civilians are mentioned, the focus of the play is on American suffering and traumatisation. Ben and Jeeter are Vietnam veterans and both deal differently with their experiences: Jeeter by writing a book about the war – with the help of Ben’s late father – and Ben reliving the past by turning into former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, starting with the press conference in which McNamara denies that the U.S. would get involved in Vietnam up to the point when he apologises for dragging the country into a hopeless war. Director John Haidar sees many similarities between Robert McNamara’s speeches and the justification by the British parliament before Syria was bombed. And Haidar is correct, little has changed and it seems like we will never learn.
The production benefits from an atmospheric set by Max Dorey and Steven Dietz’s witty and sharp dialogue.
Reviewed by: Carolin Kopplin
Photo: Ben Broomfield
Last of the Boys is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 4th June