Reviewed by Bob Verini
Hudson Mainstage Theater
Through February 28
Diana Amsterdam’s The Dodgers, now playing at the Hudson Mainstage, deals with a December “Day of Infamy,” but it’s not the one that interrupted Americans’ Sunday morning breakfast with news about something called Pearl Harbor. Just short of 28 years later, on December 1, 1969, the government held a televised lottery to determine — fairly, it insisted — which members of the infuriatingly, disingenuously named “class of 1970” would be subject to the draft. No one was immune.
Amsterdam assembles a sextet of people —meaning a sextet of young people — variously affected by this event. It examines, over the course of that night and the next day, the impact of the drawing on the the four male characters who must confront their individual fates, in which two women play an integral part.
The Dodgers has a lot going for it, including an attractive capable cast and elaborate production values. It also needs a lot of work. Its best feature is a strong sense of its own historical moment. It remembers how much was at stake on that December evening, and doesn’t let the distance of almost half a century dilute those emotional events or transform them into trivia or nostalgia.
I for one can remember that day like it was yesterday, actually. One by one, like the current-day lotto interstitials you see on local TV, balls with the number 366 were drawn and announced. Everything seemed quite above-board. You were told if you were of draft age (meaning born between 1944 and 1950) and — if your birthday fell among the first third of those chosen — then greetings! You’d likely be called for induction, and if you were deemed suitable, then good morning, Vietnam. In the bottom third, you were almost surely safe from the draft, making the Day of Infamy a day of profound relief, for you at least.
Of course, if you fell in the middle third — number 123 (Dec. 28) through number 244 (Oct. 3) — well, that really left you in limb (waiting for Godot, so to speak) — because no one could be sure how deep into the pool Nixon and company would decide to wade. The system eventually called upon birthday boys up to and through number 195 (September 24), but for the better part of a year you wallowed in uncertainty. The proceedings were repeated annually, three more times, to increasing irritation from coast to coast because everyone knew the military was scheduled to go all-volunteer. Nixon had requested that when he was first inaugurated, and it finally occurred in 1973. (Full disclosure: In my lottery year I was number 202, high enough to make Canada an unlikely prospect.)
And anyway, it quickly became embarrassingly clear that no matter when you were born, upper-middle-class kids and college students had very little to worry about, whereas the poor and people of color were pretty much fucked. The alleged “fair treatment” that the lotteries were supposed to engender backfired: Resentment against the war intensified as a cottage industry in “dodges” — ploys designed to get potential inductees classified 4-F — flourished.
That last development is at the heart of Amsterdam’s play, as antiwar activist Jane (Emma Hunton) works with an unseen, selfless local medico to peddle deferment strategies, such as the cunning infusion of egg protein into one’s pee at the physical.
The Dodgers responds to its own historical awareness with a lot of muscular acting and a few twists which, whether or not they convince, mean that if you happen to find your way to the Hudson you will never be bored and are likely to have a good time. But the setup never feels believably like a commune: Everyone is far too tidy and put-together, for one thing. Michael Carnahan and Ann Beyersdorfer’s accumulation of beads and tie-die and batik are more redolent of thrift-store purchases than hodgepodge living.
More importantly, the six characters never behave as if they’d spent any amount of intimate time together. Director Dave Solomon pushes the melodrama, the overacting and the godawful pauses from the jump, so the action’s intensity has nowhere to grow — and he can’t seem to create any independent life among roles with pretty much one trait apiece. As with the types in Hair, Mick (Asher Grodman), is the mercurial Lothario, Chili (Eric Nelsen), the wisecracking cynic, Patti (Talisa Friedman), the blonde airhead, and Sidowsky (Jared Gertner), the working-class shlub.
The aforementioned Jane is a one-note fierce scold; it’s difficult to imagine why anyone puts up with her, so intolerant and rude is she, so utterly without warmth. As Simon, Corbin Bleu (of Glee) barely gets character traits at all; he seems included so that the play has a reason to bring up racial issues. Ironically, Bleu could be the most effective member of the ensemble because of his sheer underplaying (followed by Gertner and Friedman, who are allowed some of the play’s few understated moments). The performers all seem too old for their roles, but after Grease Live! that’s a bit of disbelief one shouldn’t have trouble suspending.
Amsterdam might want to take a look at Michael Weller’s Moonchildren; written less than two years after the lottery, it takes up most of the issues in which she’s interested but is more skillful at investing a group of people with a shared past and a complex present. In the meantime, The Dodgers stands as a flawed, though ambitious and sincere, effort to bring part of America’s political past alive again.
Hudson Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.; through Feb. 28. (323) 960-7712; www.plays411.com/thedodgers. Running time: one hour and 40 minutes.