Brad Fleischer and Ato Essendoh in Streamers
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Brad Fleischer and Ato Essendoh in Streamers
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Today's theatergoers may be forgiven if they're a bit fuzzy on the thrust of David Rabe's 1976 play Streamers, since it hasn't had a major revival since winning a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play. Thanks to a crack director, Scott Ellis, and a sizzling cast, the Huntington Theatre's first-rate rendition makes you wonder why this play has yet to be anointed into the big-marquee canon.

Although it's the third entry in Rabe's Vietnam-themed triptych of early works -- it was preceded by 1971's The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and 1972's Sticks and Bones -- Streamers, which is set in 1965, does not appear to be inextricably linked to that particular conflict. That accounts for the play's renewed timeliness, as we slog through another ill-conceived long-distance campaign. And conversely, the paucity of historical tethering permits the drama a measure of timelessness.

The locus here is not the heated theater of war, but the anteroom thereto. Rabe trains his cool, reportorial eye not on any ideological arguments, but on the systemic marginalization that produces willing killers. The four enlistees at the play's center -- three bunkmates and an interloper -- have heard rumors of Vietnam, where they suspect they'll soon be assigned. In the meanwhile, having survived boot camp, they're just biding their time, trying to get along, and glean a few small pleasures during the indeterminate wait.

Richie (Hale Appleman) is a New York sophisticate and an unapologetic -- if unflamboyant -- homosexual; while his roommates, the college-educated Billy (Brad Fleischer), who tries to pass as a mere prole, and Roger (J.D. Williams), a go-getting African-American who's a classic accommodator, are constantly after Richie to admit that he's not gay (or "punk," as they put it). However, Richie clearly has a thing for Billy, which may or may not be reciprocated.

Into this stew of simmering relationships bursts Carlyle (Ato Essendoh), a jive-talking operator on permanent KP duty. Representing the lowest stratum of Army life -- and whatever past put him there -- Carlyle is lonely or crazy or both. And as played by Essendoh, he's as mesmerizing as a writhing serpent.

At the outset of the play, Billy poses a Scylla-and-Charybdis conundrum: Would Roger prefer "snow or snakes" (an assignment in the frigid North or in the jungle)? The surprise denouement -- Rabe has masterfully built up the tension, but it still comes as a shock -- contains elements of both. Meanwhile, a stereotypically blustering boor of a sergeant (Larry Clarke) has devolved into a harmless, clueless nursemaid, huddled among the remaining lost boys.

Rabe doesn't require us to analyze or attach any sort of message to what we've seen. It's as if he just wants us along for the ride, as witnesses to what he himself saw in the 1960s. There's a searing transparency to his writing, intensified by the honest, grounded performances Ellis has elicited from this elite cadre of actors.