All The Rabe

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

In 1967 David Rabe returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam and began to write. Five years later, his second play, Sticks and Bones, won the Tony award for Best New Play. Around that same time, a small theater in Boston revived Rabe-s first play, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, starring a young actor named Al Pacino.

Later that year, the release of a film titled The Godfather made Pacino one of the most sought after actors in the world. So in 1977, when David Rabe-s Pavlo Hummel starring Al Pacino opened on Broadway, it became the theater event of the year.

In the 27 years since then, David Rabe has had only one play appear on a Broadway stage: his groundbreaking 1984 work Hurlyburly. Despite its success, Rabe was unhappy with the New York staging of Hurlyburly, so he decided to direct it himself here in Los Angeles in a notable production at the Westwood Playhouse starring a young actor named Sean Penn.

In the years following this trip to L.A., Rabe has tried his hand at screenwriting, and has written an assortment of novels and plays. None have received the attention or acclaim of his early Vietnam dramas. What the future holds for David Rabe is unclear, but two local productions of his other work from the -70-s shed some perspective on both the writing and career of this major American dramatist.

After the success of Sticks and Bones, Rabe-s next play to reach the stage was In the Boom Boom Room his first piece not set in Vietnam. The show is a sentimental, sort of day-in-the-life portrait of a confused exotic dancer who dreams of a legitimate dance career in Manhattan.

In 1973, Rabe-s frank depiction of this seedy milieu was somewhat novel, as Broadway was still a place where nudity and expletives were considered taboo. But now, abuse and incest - two of the play-s key subjects - are now spoken of openly on daytime TV and the stripper-with-the-heart-of-gold narrative has been exploited by campy films like Flashdance and Showgirls.

So thirty years later, In the Boom Boom Room has little shock value, and - if the current production at the 2nd Stage Theater is any indication - little dramatic value as well. Actress J.J. Pyle tries hard to create a character, but there-s is little in the lead role but clich-s. Rabe-s Chrissy seems like a low-rent Holly Golightly and the rest of the characters simply recite rambling, urban monologues that may sound great in auditions, but become tedious in a two-hour play.

Rabe returned to the subject of Vietnam in his next work. If Boom Boom Room shows how dated Rabe-s dialogue can seem, his 1976 drama Streamers shows just how timeless his writing can be.

Streamers takes place in the early stages of the Vietnam War, but the themes and emotions are universal enough, that it could be set in a German trench in World War I or an Allied barracks in World War II.

As in Boom Boom Room, Streamers reveals Rabe-s penchant for monologue, but here the long speeches are expressive and if not always realistic, at least plausible.

Streamers is a bit of an old-fashioned, well-made play, but this production by the Gangbusters Theater Company makes the dialogue and action come to life. The blocking is simple - often clunky - but never distracting, and the penetrating finale is impressively staged.

Most of all, this Streamers has an excellent, young ensemble. The three bunkmates are all played by strong actors, but most impressive is the outsider, Carlyle, played by Romel Jamison in perhaps the best local performance at a small theater so far this year.

Jamison and the cast of Streamers show that one thing has remained constant throughout David Rabe-s career: the ability of his writing to bring out the best in young actors.

Streamers runs through August 1st at the Lex Theater, In the Boom Boom Room continues at the 2nd Stage Theater until July 17th

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.